Why Product Managers Become Practice Managers in an Agile Environment

If you’re a product manager, how fun would it be if you actually got to steer the product ship as outlined in your job description! Well, good news: If your development team is using or implementing Agile, the stars are aligned in your favor. Incorporate these responsibilities into your next agile product manager job description and have fun doing product management the way it was meant to be!

There are two common scenarios that product management teams face when making the shift from waterfall to Agile development. One is pretty straight forward, and the other isn’t as difficult as you might think.

  1. If you have product managers and either business analysts or technical product managers, the transition is pretty simple. The BAs or technical product managers become the product owners and product managers remain product managers, albeit with a welcome change to their responsibilities.
  2. If you have product managers only, most will function as product owners and a few will remain product managers, with the same welcome change to their responsibilities.

In either case, the biggest change isn’t for the product owners. The more significant change is the scope of the product manager role. Why? In an Agile world, product managers have to distance themselves from the day-to-day product execution a little more than they’re used to and trust product owners to make good decisions on the functional implementation of the solutions.

The good news is that product managers get to do more of what they were hired to do, like spending more time with customers and prospects, laying out strategic roadmaps with high-value market/customer needs, and creating plans to make them successful in the market.

If you’re currently a business analyst or technical product manager, getting tagged as a product owner isn’t a significant change. You’re still functioning as the surrogate user and feeding user scenarios and functional product requirements to developers, albeit with different processes and artifacts.

If you’re a product manager, getting tagged as a product owner might seem like the end of the world at first, but in reality, it isn’t. For many, especially product managers with strong technical backgrounds, it could be a blessing in disguise because the product owner role keeps technical people closer to their comfort zone.  It may not be the job they signed up for, but that’s a different topic for a different day.

Becoming a Practice Manager

If you are a full-time product manager in an Agile environment (and not wearing the product owner hat), here is your single biggest change – and it’s one you’ll fully embrace.

The biggest chunk of your focus is now on customer business practices. For example, let’s say your products support HR functions such as recruiting and talent management. You have to become the business practice expert (a.k.a. practice manager) for those business functions across all industries that you target.

In other words, you’re now the “chief business expert.” Your number one responsibility, and your value to the organization, is your comprehensive knowledge of how companies are recruiting, hiring and managing their human capital. What’s trending? What types of obstacles are the market dynamics creating for your target customers? How are they dealing with those obstacles, and which ones have the biggest impact on how they recruit and manage their talent?

It may be hard to let go, but make a conscious effort to relinquish the “product expert” crown to the product owner and fully embrace the practice manager (business expert) role! It will do wonders for your career going forward.

The practice manager role exemplifies the purest approach for identifying market and business requirements without any bias toward the design and implementation of product features. How fun is that? It’s the most critical component of a product manager’s job. Unfortunately, most aren’t afforded the opportunity to do it because they’re spread too thin trying to fulfill both the product manager and product owner roles.

Now that you’re a full-time practice manager, what do you do with all this information? Educate and lead. Use it to educate your Agile teams (as well as many other disciplines). Use it to lead when it comes to strategic planning, investment decisions and crafting your market positioning.

Ratio of Product Managers to Product Owners

One of the many things I love about Agile is the mandatory product owner role. It’s the lynchpin that allows product managers to function as practice managers, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the product manager role.

When product managers have the luxury to focus more on business practices without the ball and chain of day-to-day design and development issues, they can do a much better job at steering products strategically. With that as the backdrop, roughly 80% of your headcount should be product owners to handle the day-to-day heavy lifting, and 20% should be practice (product) managers.

The 80/20 headcount ratio allows practice/product managers to cover much more ground (driving the direction of more products across the same customer business functions) because they’re forced to operate at a business requirement level versus a product requirement level, while still having complete oversight on key product decisions.

Give it a whirl. Agile can make the newly defined practice (product) manager role fun again! More importantly, the tag team of practice manager and product owner results in higher value product solutions that accelerate your growth because they’re more valuable to customers.

If you want to elevate the role of product manager to practice manager and deliver higher value solutions, contact Proficientz to discuss how our product portfolio management training programs and our B2B Product Management Framework make it easier than any other in the market.

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