If you’re not sure what, exactly, the term agile product management means, you’re not alone. Agile is one of those buzzwords whose true meaning has become obscured through overuse. When it comes to product management or project management (where the concept originated), agile doesn’t simply mean fast or smart. It represents a specific philosophy and approach for getting work done.
To understand what this concept really means, let’s quickly define each of the terms separately.
What Is Product Management?
Product management is responsible for the success of a company’s products on the market. The roles of Product Managers and Product Leaders are not as clearly defined as those of engineers (who build the products) or sales reps (who sell them).
Product management is a strategic function that involves bringing products to market and overseeing their entire lifecycle — coming up with the vision, prototyping, validating the concept with users, coordinating the development of the product, overseeing the launch and marketing efforts, etc.
What Is Agile?
When it comes to product management, agile is a broad term that describes an approach to building and releasing products in increments, to gather as much learning and feedback from users as possible to help continually improve the product.
It’s important to note that agile is only an approach or philosophy — it does not have a rigid set of rules or steps. It began decades ago as a project management strategy (not specifically for building products but for overseeing and coordinating any type of business project), and agile project managers created their own unique steps to implement agile in their organization.
The Agile Manifesto, on which these concepts are based, lists only principles, not steps that teams need to complete. Some of the key principles include:
- Satisfy the customer.
- Welcome changing requirements.
- Deliver projects (software) frequently.
- Prioritize simplicity.
- Reflect regularly on how the team can work more effectively.
Okay, So What Does Agile Product Management Mean?
Now let’s put it all together.
Product management comprises all of the strategic responsibilities for driving products from concept to launch and then overseeing those products’ success for their entire life cycles.
Agile is an iterative approach that involves breaking large projects into smaller cycles, completing those cycles, and then conferring with users to gain feedback on how to improve the next cycles.
So, agile product management describes an approach to building and releasing products based on the agile principles — building the product in small increments (just one or two features, for example), releasing that functionality to the market, soliciting and processing user feedback, and using those learnings to continually iterate on the product and make the product more valuable for the market.
Put another way: As we describe in our blog on agile product development best practices, it’s a way of delivering functionality that reduces the cycle time from idea to market release.
How has agile changed product management?
You might be wondering: If agile is the popular new approach to product management, what did it replace?
Prior to agile, Product Managers typically took what we now call the waterfall approach.
Waterfall is a much more linear and siloed methodology. Product teams start by working alone — without input from development — to build detailed specifications for every aspect of the product. When they complete these specs (often called Product Requirements Documents), the product team hands them off to the development team to begin work.
Benefits of Agile Product Management
Agile product management improves upon several of the significant drawbacks to the waterfall approach. Here are just some of the key benefits of this newer framework.
1. Product-development partnership.
With the waterfall approach, the product team misses out on the real-time input and expertise from its engineering department. A Product Manager might spend days or weeks writing a lengthy PRD based on specifications and requirements for which the development team might know of more efficient and cost-effective alternatives.
In an agile product management environment, the product and development teams work closely together from the earliest concept stages of a new product. That means both teams can contribute their unique viewpoints and expertise to building the early functionality.
2. Company-customer partnership.
Because an agile organization is building products in small increments and regularly releasing new functionality to the market, that company will enjoy the benefit of valuable feedback (and product-analytics data) along the way from its trial users and customers.
This means an agile company is able to work in closer partnership with its user base to shape and improve its products. That gives the organization many more opportunities to correct weaknesses and build on strengths than a company that simply builds its entire product and only then makes it available to buyers.
3. Earning revenue sooner.
Finally, a company that releases products to the market more frequently — and that launches products before they’re “done” — is able to begin signing up customers and banking revenue sooner than a company that releases nothing until they’ve completed every last feature.
The Key Pitfall of Agile Product Management
As productive as agile product management can be, experienced Product Managers also know that implementing this strategy alone will turn an otherwise dysfunctional product department into a successful one. In our craft.io 2023 State of Product Management Report, those PMs offer an insightful reminder about a common pitfall of this approach.
When we asked our survey’s 500 product professionals to rank the six factors in the chart below in order of importance, respondents listed “Good agile development processes” at the very bottom.
Why did these product professionals leave agile as their lowest priority in terms of creating successful product teams? If you look at the other success factors in that chart, you’ll see they relate directly to understanding the company’s customer, bringing talented people onto the team, and building reliable processes to ensure they’re prioritizing the right things.
Yes, agile is important for product management. But implementing this framework can only help your team run more quickly in the direction you’re already headed. If you haven’t addressed these other vital factors — for example, if you don’t truly understand your customers’ challenges and needs — adding the speed of agile might only help you run more quickly off a cliff.
What Are the Typical Agile Product Management Roles?
Agile product management teams take different approaches to assigning roles. (Remember, the agile framework is about building a flexible process that works for you, not adhering to predefined rules.) But the following are typical agile product development roles.
- Product Manager
- Product Owner
- Scrum master (the development lead)
- UX designer
- Tester/QA professional
Product Management’s Participation in Solution Trains
The way we’ve been discussing agile to this point describes the process primarily in the context of smaller teams releasing individual products. But what happens when an organization grows to become a large enterprise and releases large, complex solutions to the market?
Many of those organizations adopt a version of agile product management better suited to big teams — often including hundreds of product professionals and developers working simultaneously on dozens of interrelated products. That approach is called SAFe, or the Scaled Agile Framework.
What is a solution train?
One way these massive product organizations are able to manage such complex operations is through Solution Trains, which the Scaled Agile Framework’s website describes this way:
“The Solution Train is the organizational construct used to build large and complex Solutions that require the coordination of multiple Agile Release Trains (ARTs), as well as the contributions of Suppliers. It aligns ARTs with a shared business and technology mission using the solution Vision, Backlog, and Roadmap, and an aligned Program Increment.”
What is solution management?
A key role in the Solution Train approach at large enterprises is the Solution Manager. Like a Product Manager in a traditional product organization, this person acts as the customer’s advocate or champion across all of the Agile Release Trains, thinking through users’ needs and how those needs should affect product development across the entire solution portfolio.
Bottom line: If you work in a large enterprise, you might want to look into Solution Trains and the Scaled Agile Framework. These are the most effective ways —indeed, maybe the only ways — to leverage the benefits of agile in such a large and complex organization.
But if you’re working for a midsize or smaller company, your team won’t need to worry about the Solution Train approach. You can take advantage of the convention agile product development methodology.
What to Look for When Choosing Agile Product Management Tools
Agile product management requires a team to track and analyze data at a granular level, react quickly to new information, complete projects in short timeframes, and adjust course frequently. Being able to effectively address these needs — particularly now with remote workers and geographically distributed teams — having the proper software is an essential component to successful agile development.
In our blog, 7 Agile Project Management Tools for Your Team, we offer many suggestions about the types of functionality to look for when building the tech stack for your agile processes. Here are some of the most valuable capabilities you’ll want for your team’s agile product development solution.
1. Sprint planning.
The typical unit of work on an agile development team is the sprint, a narrowly defined plan to work on a limited number of stories over a couple of weeks or a month.
If you’re arranging your team’s work in sprints, you’ll want a solution designed specifically to help you organize, view, and monitor your work in sprint timeframes. You’ll want drag-and-drop capabilities here, and the ability to quickly move items between your backlog and sprint. Spreadsheets won’t do.
Your agile product management team will regularly be using new learnings (market research, user feedback, etc.) to determine what aspects of your product it will be most strategically advantageous to work on next.
To make those prioritization decisions reliable and data-driven, you’ll want to use proven frameworks — such as RICE and MoSCoW prioritization. In fact, you might even want to be able to weigh your competing items using more than one framework at a time.
That means you’ll want a software solution with numerous best-practice prioritization methodologies built in — so you can quickly score competing backlog items using consistent criteria and move seamlessly among multiple prioritization frameworks to make sure you’re not being biased by a single framework’s biases.
3. Capacity planning.
An essential component to any agile product management operation is knowing what resources the team has available at any given moment and which resources are already committed to other work. That’s the only way the team can reliably plan its upcoming sprints or quickly adjust course if needed.
So you’ll want to make sure whichever software your product team uses has built-in capacity planning capability. You’ll want to be able see at-a-glance each team’s current and planned workloads. Ideally, you’ll also want a “sandbox area” in the application that lets you test the effects of adjusting teams or resource levels — without affecting the live roadmap or other data.
4. Integrations with your development tools.
Product roadmaps are invaluable strategic tools for capturing and communicating your big-picture strategy. But because agile teams work in much shorter timeframes than roadmaps typically reflect — weeks instead of months or years — you’ll want to make sure your roadmap also reflects the latest progress on your development team’s daily tasks. And ideally, you shouldn’t need to go into their Jira or Azure DevOps accounts whenever you need an update.
That’s why you’ll want to make sure your agile product development tool platform includes deep integrations with your dev tools: Jira, ADO, GitHub, Confluence, Pivotal Tracker, etc. If your development team is regularly updating the status of their work on stories, epics, and features, you want to be able to see those updates from the product management solution you’re working on throughout your day.
5. Flexible data views — but Kanban is a must-have.
There are many useful ways to view your agile product data, and your software solution should offer you as many as possible. Swimlane, timeline, sprint panel, roadmap, objectives, dependencies, dev & bugs, segmentation — all of these can be useful at different times to help you better understand your team’s progress, needs, and potential challenges.
But the most productive way to view your agile team’s data is the Kanban view. Your product management solution should make it easy to arrange your sprints using the familiar Kanban board, columns, and cards — and to easily move items from one sprint to another based on priority and capacity.
In fact, with the right Kanban tool, you’ll be able to display other key product data in the same view, such as the team assigned to each item, that item’s status and importance level, and even if it has a dependency and whether that dependency has the potential to block its completion.
When you’re moving and making decisions quickly, as a good agile development team should, you’ll want as much relevant information at your fingertips as possible at all times.
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