A better Product Owner is a Product Manager

A better Product Owner is a Product Manager

Product Owner or Product Manager?

The great forgotten in Agile adoptions, conferences and literature are Product people, Product Owners and Product Managers.

Most companies doing Agile are just doing Agile in IT. It is still the old service-provider paradigm between the business and IT that Agile was supposed to fix. What happens between ideation and delivery is purely waterfall, and a lot of time is wasted before something gets to a delivery team.

Agile was born to bridge the gap between business and technology but it didn’t solve the underlying problem, and in doing so it just created a funny “bridge” called Product Owner, which in most cases is neither Product nor Owner.

Product Owner - Middleman

One of the key reasons for this is that all Agile frameworks focus on delivery, not in discovery and business success. So, in the best of the situations, we end up having teams delivering fast, iteratively and incrementally stuff that nobody wants.

Another key reason is how organizations are (not) structured for value delivery.

The role of Product Owner has to evolve alongside how organizations are structured for delivering value to customers #betterproductsfaster #lean #productmgmt Click To Tweet

The problem

Talking with Heads of Product, Chief Product Officers and Product Managers we realized they are looking for certain skills in the market they can not find. These are skills of traditional Product Management, Business, Marketing, Sales combined with modern mindset and techniques of Lean Startup, Lean UX, Agile and Lean.

As many Product Owners come from a technical or industry-specific background they also lack the basic leadership skills required to thrive in this complicated role. Skills such as leading without authority, negotiation, effective communication, effective presentations, influencing, and so on.

We have also observed how the majority of POs are focused on delivery. They are basically order-takers, as someone tells them what to do and they execute with the help of the team.

In the best case they get a Business Case; in the worst, they get projects. It is rare the case in which the POs receive strategic objectives and they are the ones in charge of developing a business case and validating it iteratively with the clients as well as launching MVPs until they reach Product-Market Fit.

Most public Scrum Product Owner trainings fundamentally work on the basic aspects of Scrum delivery. Very far away from what Heads of Product are looking for and where the future of organizations is aiming towards.

Product Owner vs Product Manager

The majority of the Product Owners come from an engineering background, an industry-specific background or project management background, while very few come from a Business background. So, they lack basic Product Management skills.

However, most Product Owners don’t need those skills because in the way their companies are organized they are basically order takers, delivery managers or backlog administrators.

But, what happens if they want to look for another job in a real product organization? What if their company decides to restructure and become a real customer-centric product organization?

To solve this and become really agile, companies need to organize for products and leverage the role of the Product Owner, making them real Product Managers with total responsibility developing products customers love and for generating business benefits.

As Marty Cagan says in his book “Inspired”: 

“In digital product companies, it is critical that the product manager also be the product owner. If you split these roles into two people, some very common and predictable problems result—most commonly, the loss of your team’s ability to innovate and consistently create new value for your business and your customers. Moreover, the additional responsibilities of the product manager are what enables good product owner decisions in a product company.

Second, (…) the product owner role covers a very small part of the responsibilities of a product manager. To summarize,product owner responsibilities are a small subset of product management responsibilities, but it’s critical that the product manager covers both”.

We did some research

Apart from our own field experience, we did some research. We interviewed a few Chief Product Officers and Heads of Product and here are three quotes from different people that summarize our concern:

“I have been looking for a PO and after 3 months and 230 interviews I still didn’t hire any. They do not know how to make a business case or a landing page”

“My POs are very focused on the delivery and I need them to understand the market, the business and the customers”

“I would like my POs to better sell what we do, better communication and relationship skills”

Organizational Patterns

In our experience and, also validated with our own research, we identified three basic organizational patterns, two of which are dysfunctional:

Organizational Pattern #1 – Proxy Product Managers

Business ↔ Product Management ↔ PO ↔ Delivery Teams

Proxy Product Manager

In this scenario we have the Business Units asking Product Managers to deliver on an already approved Business Case. So, basically Product Managers manage the high-level delivery roadmap whilst POs and their team administer the detailed backlog.

Even if you are doing Agile in the teams this is pure waterfall, with silos, hand-offs, division of responsibility and wishful thinking.

Organizational Pattern #2 – Proxy Product Owners

Business ↔ PO ↔ Delivery Teams

Proxy Product Owner

This is an evolution (for the better) of the previous approach; however, instead of having separate roles in delivery functions, you just have one, typically the Product Owner. But, still a delivery role.

This pattern is the same as SAFe suggests, as the Product Manager belongs to the business units and participates in the Business Case elaboration.

Organizational Pattern #3 – Product Organization

Value Stream Manager - Lean Product Management

Division/Product with Product Managers or Value Stream Managers with total responsibility for the development of a product or product line. The Product Manager leads a small, dedicated team that creates the product concept, develops the business case, leads the technical design of the product, manages the development process, coordinates with production engineering and sales/marketing, and takes the product into production.

If you are in patterns #1 or #2 you have a great problem. You are usually delivering late stuff nobody wants, with a lot of drama and friction.

What happens when POs with pattern #1 or #2 -based experience want to get a job in a modern product company? They don’t get it, because they lack key skills.

The Solution

Agile was born to solve a problem, to bridge the gap between Business and IT. But, in doing so, it didn’t solve the problem, it just created a bridge.

The real solution is to create real Product Teams with real Product Managers. Teams responsible for business outcomes not for working software. Teams that get strategic objectives as input and develop products customers love as a result.

There is a real need for Product Owners evolving towards Product Managers and this has clear implications:

  1. Companies have to evolve towards a Product Organization (or Division Organization for bigger ones). Breaking silos and focusing on the value delivered to customers
  2. Professionals with a technical, project management or industry-specific background have to learn and develop the capabilities of great product managers
  3. After a successful Agile adoption many companies still spend months or years ideating, defining and creating business models, business plans or product roadmaps. This is something from the past. You need to learn to apply modern Product Management techniques to deliver great experiences to the market

We need one person owning the whole value stream from idea to customer delivery; responsible for discovery and delivery, for managing stakeholders, for working together with product designers, engineers, marketing and sales, for developing a business model, ultimately THE single person accountable for delivering value to customers and capturing value back to the organization.

We must stop talking about Agile Teams, Delivery Teams, Software Teams or Scrum Teams and start talking about Product Teams. What is a Product Team?:

  • Owns from the idea to customer delivery
  • Focused on business objectives
  • Does Discovery & Delivery
  • Performance measured by achieving business outcomes not working software

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