Product Owner/Product Manager: Can You be Both?

Agile’s changes ripple through the organization beyond the Development group.  Chief among the big questions that arise: can the Product Manager be the Product Owner?  The dual role has its challenges!  Here are the two key challenges you’ll face, and some hard-won tips on navigating a dual role in your organization.

Challenge #1: The new collaborative behavior in the Agile team. Product Management has long relied on Cross-functional Product Teams to launch successful products. But they typically meet only once a week, sometimes less. Agile teams need near-full-time access to the Product Owner for information and issue resolution.

Challenge #2: The Product Owner’s only job is to focus on the current iteration.  A typical Product Manager manages three products, in various stages of their life cycles. PMs must focus not only on the product’s functionality, but also on its financial performance, plans for marketing launch, current sales and support issues.

So as a Product Manager, can you do both? We agree with Dean Leffingwel’s comments:

“… within the enterprise, it’s not always appropriate nor feasible to have product managers fill the role of the agile product owner, and we noted that organizing the roles around the release and iteration boundaries/ownership often make sense. …When this happens, while the activities of the product manager role evolve in an agile enterprise, so long as the product owner assumes the basic iteration responsibilities, many aspects of the enterprise product managers role are largely unchanged.”

http://scalingsoftwareagility.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/role-of-the-product-manager/

What if you are asked to take on Product Owner role in addition to your current responsibilities?

1.  Lobby to get the Product Owner role separate from Product Management, so the roles and responsibilities can be split. Who will eventually take on that role? In commercial software organizations, a Business Analyst or Program Manager is sometimes a logical choice. You might also look in QA or Tech Support for great Product Owner candidates.

2.  Re-negotiate the rest of your workload. Reduce the number of products that you manage. Reduce the number of extra projects you’re assigned. Where will that work go? If Agile succeeds in your organization, then you’ll quadruple Development productivity. Either you’ll free up headcount to backfill some PM’s, or the product releases will be so financially successful that more people can be hired.

3.  As a last resort, compromise all your products and projects to make time to be available to the Agile team. We don’t like this option, but sometimes it’s the best you can do.

Key to making this option come anywhere close to success is to establish “Product Owner” hours so that the Dev team can be assured they have regular, frequent access to you. Make sure that you attend the daily stand-up (even if by phone) and set aside the 30 minutes (at least) following the stand-up to provide further information for the team’s work for the day. Allocate another 30 minutes mid-day, like right after lunch, to do the same thing.

If you have a hard time getting the rest of your stakeholders to respect this schedule, enlist the key Agile proponent in your Dev team to support your plan (and ask for option #1 or #2!).

View your organization’s move to Agile as an opportunity to emphasize Product Management’s strategic contributions. To help you sort out product management and product owner roles and responsibilities, consider participating in the next Agile PM Distance Learning course session.

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