Product Management – Why a Product Owner needs to go beyond Scrum

I started my product management career in the Pharmaceutical Industry 20 years ago. It was all about product development, clinical trials, long lead times to market, developing modelling for regulatory approval, intense competition to bring new drugs to market, market research, vision and strategy and business forecasting. It was an exciting role and I had the opportunity to launch big global products across Asia Pacific.

Nowadays the product manager role in IT industry is common place, but when I first moved into the IT industry 15 years ago, there wasn’t a product manager role and product management wasn’t well understood, it was all about projects. So, I became a project manager. The job wasn’t quite the same, it was more about requirements, schedules and budget and less about visioning, value and validation. 

When I started to hear about agile and this role called  Product Owner in Scrum, I was excited as I saw an opportunity to move from a project to a product mindset. What was missing for me in the project manager role, was that connection from vision to execution and the focus on value. Instead I found projects were driven by plans focused on process compliance rather than value. When product management (vision) is separated from product ownership (delivery) there is a product management vacuum. 

Project Management Mindset vs Product Management Mindset

My colleague Matthew Hodgson, recently wrote about a report where 85% of executives intend to move away from projects to product management. He discussed how products were defined by how they were used and must have value to that end user whereas project are often a temporary construct and in isolation of the bigger picture that product amnagement brings. I often use this chart he put together describing the different focus in project management vs product management 

An Effective Product Owner focuses on Product Management

Using agile as a base for product management makes sense as the Product Owner’s accountability is all about value and ensuring that the people doing the work understand the business goals and product vision. The key is to bring stakeholders and developers together with a shared understand around purpose and value for customers.  Product development is a (scrum) team sport covering all activities from product strategy to solution discovery and value through to delivery and validation, informed by vision and the Product Goal. To be effective the Product owner needs to go beyond Scrum as the majority of product management work goes beyond scrum. 

Scrum covers initial development, evolving and sustaining a product however areas not covered by Scrum are also important. Portfolio, marketing, strategy, pricing and more are needed. A Product Owner therefore needs to have one foot in the door optimising the Product Backlog for the Scrum team and the other foot understanding the customer, market and vision. This is what makes it such an incredibly challenging and rewarding role. An effective Product Owner therefore focuses on product management to:

  • Approach the product with a holistic product management mindset
  • Create a shared understanding with vision, product goal and value
  • Leverage Scrum for frequent product validation through inspection and adaption

Domain of Agile Product Management

The domain of Agile Product Management, looks at the holistic picture of what it takes from ideation to delivering value to customers. The Product Owner is accountable for product value, but the ownership and delivery resides with the whole Scrum team. Delivery and validation are a constant that ensures this line of sight from vision, business strategy and product vision to product strategy, solution discovery, delivery and value. If a Product Owner only executes on the lower levels (eg just writing user stories for fixed deliverables) then their role is reduced to little more than being a scribe or proxy. This weakens cross layer alignment and makes it hard to come up with a Product Goal or Sprint Goal.  Just having a “Product Owner” but not giving them the accountability, isn’t enough to create valuable products. An effective Product Owner is a strategic agile product manager that ties the Product Vision into the daily work by having a product management entrepreneurial mindset. 

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