Before agile frameworks came to life, product management was something like this—the product manager conducts research, generates market requirements specifications, compiles a business case, creates detailed requirement specifications, and hands them off to the project manager. The project manager then meets with development teams to get the specification implemented.
The product manager thenceforth was only loosely involved in the development process, occasionally attending meetings. Only when the product was near finishing did the product manager emerge from oblivion to prepare its release.
This approach was okay in instances of fewer changes and low innovation. Product managers could then correctly estimate user needs and functionalities upfront. However, complex digital products and rapid innovation are the true reflections of reality. They called for a more flexible method that allows development teams to cope with an ever-changing world.
Enter agile product management. The processes applied to develop products have significantly changed. Product people and development teams now collaborate closely with one another. Dev teams have become cross-functional and consist of UI/UX designers, programmers, graphic designers, and testers. Products are now developed using iterative-incremental processes.
Requirements are no longer detailed and frozen before development starts; They evolve. As it stands, an increasing number of organizations have moved away from organizing around projects and have started to embrace a product-centric approach. These changes have had a profound impact on product management.
This guide will provide an overview of agile product management, its applications, and best practices to help you understand and implement the agile methodology in your product development process.
What’s in this guide:
- What is agile product management?
- Why is agile product management effective?
- Cons of agile product management
- 6 essential steps to agile product management
- 4 tips for managing products in an agile way
- 6 agile product management frameworks
- Example companies using agile product management
What is agile product management?
According to research, agile projects are 28% more successful than traditional projects. Agile product management is a methodology for product development that focuses on transparency, delivering customer value, quickly responding to change, and managing by experiment rather than by plan.
A key feature of agile product management is that it uses an iterative development cycle, which allows teams to quickly adapt to customer feedback, competitor moves, and technology innovations. During each iteration, product teams rapidly test and deploy new features, validate product-market fit, and improve the overall user experience.
It follows the agile manifesto, a set of principles that outline the core values and practices of agile project management. The main goal of agile product management is to create high-quality products in short cycles and focus on customer satisfaction.
Why is agile product management effective?
In traditional product development approaches, it is common to spend months or even years developing a product before it is released to the market. Meanwhile, clients have to pray that the requirements were implemented as specified.
In contrast, with agile product management, the product team can release a minimum viable product (MVP) to customers within weeks or months. Here are several reasons why agile product management is considered an effective approach to product development.
1. Early user feedback and frequent solution validation: Agile product management is flexible and allows for changes to be made to the product backlog based on feedback from customers, stakeholders, and the market. This ensures that the product being developed is continuously improving and meeting the evolving needs of the target audience.
2. Faster delivery: By taking an iterative approach, agile product management allows for quick releases of new features. By breaking down the product development process into manageable pieces and focusing on delivering customer value, product teams can quickly adapt and make changes when needed.
3. Increased collaboration: The agile methodology encourages collaboration between cross-functional teams, which allows teams to identify opportunities and solve problems more quickly, leading to higher customer satisfaction and retention. In a survey conducted by Stack Overflow, almost 86% of 1015 international software developers use agile. Product managers now work with the development team to refine the product backlog and identify needed changes. This leverages the team members' creativity, creates a shared understanding, fosters collective ownership, improves the quality of the requirements, and ultimately results in better products.
4. Better product quality and improved adaptability of products: Agile product management improves the quality of products through the application of agile development practices like emergent design, test-driven development, and continuous integration. This allows teams to adapt products more quickly and respond to user feedback more easily.
5. Transparent development progress: Agile product development allows teams to view progress more clearly and make corrections early rather than tracking activities on a Gantt chart-based project plan. This mitigates the risk of discovering late that the project cannot be shipped on time or that some features were implemented incorrectly.
6. Motivated productive teams: Self-organizing development teams tend to be more motivated and productive compared to traditional ones as they are able to determine how much work can be done in a given period, decide who carries out a specific task, and determine how people work together. What makes a great product team stand out is their mutual understanding because building a great product requires team effort.
We need to remember that building an amazing product is a team sport. And our job as product managers is to give context on the who, the what, and the why. -Sherif Mansour, Product manager at Atlassian.
Cons of agile product management
According to research, the biggest roadblocks to implementing Agile are unclear project scope, lack of company vision, and too many projects per team member. This goes to show that while agile product management has its benefits, there are still some product management challenges that persist.
These challenges may not have been caused by agile, but agile has made them visible and, in some cases, worse. Here are some more challenges of agile product management.
1. Lack of empowerment
When the scrum founders coined the scrum team role, they chose the term “product owner” instead of “product manager”. They did this to emphasize the level of authority and empowerment a product person requires, especially in an agile context where collaboration is valued.
However, a lack of empowerment is still a big issue in product management. Product managers sometimes lack support from upper management and can’t always make strategic product decisions or take ownership of the roadmap.
Instead, they are in danger of being a product backlog manager purely focused on the tactical aspects of the product instead of having full stack ownership and being able to maximize the value it creates.
2. Confusion about roles and responsibilities
Even though Agile has been in operation for a while now, roles like product owner and scrum master are not always clearly understood, let alone effectively apply.
Product owners are mistaken for product backlog managers or stakeholder pleasers instead of individuals in charge of the product and whose decisions the entire organization should respect.
3. Lack of direct interaction with users and customers
It's not uncommon to meet product managers who have no direct access to users and customers. Instead, they solely rely on quantitative data and feedback from sales.
And while analytics tools have come a long way, this makes it hard to empathize with the users and customers and to fully understand their needs. This reduces the chances of offering a product that does an excellent job for its target audience and generates the desired business benefits.
4. A lack of a sustainable pace.
According to the Agile manifesto, sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely. However, working at a sustainable pace can be challenging.
Product managers, aside their other duties, must regularly interact with development teams to update the product backlog, develop goals, answer questions, and provide feedback. They are at risk of being overworked.
I sincerely hope that 20 years from now, empowerment will no longer be an issue. Product roles will be better understood and more effectively applied. Product discovery and product strategy will always be practiced by anybody who manages or owns a product. While there's still plenty of work to be done. I'm optimistic about the future. -Roman Pilcher, expert product management consultant and author of “How to lead in product management”.
6 essential steps to agile product management
Several essential steps should be taken in order to implement agile product management effectively:
Step 1. Define the product backlog
The product backlog includes a list of activities the team will need to perform, such as bugs to fix, features to do, or experiments to run, to drive a specific product. The product backlog should be updated regularly based on feedback from customers, stakeholders, and the market. For customer feedback, prioritize features based on customer value and technical complexity.
Step 2. Conduct customer research
To ensure that the product being developed meets the needs and expectations of the target audience, it is important to conduct customer research. This can include focus groups, surveys, and other methods of gathering feedback from customers. Use this feedback to validate the product vision and identify customer needs.
Step 3. Define the product vision
The product vision is a clear and concise statement that describes what the product is and why it is important. It should guide the product team in their decision-making and prioritization. Start with the big picture, and define the vision for the product. What is the problem you're trying to solve? What does success look like?
Step 4. Create a product roadmap
A product roadmap is a high-level visual representation of the product backlog and the timeline for delivering each item. It is used to gain alignment internally and externally on your general direction. It often breaks down sections of your roadmap into smaller chunks that focus on a specific problem. A single chunk could describe the user intent, how you will measure success, and maybe what's in and out of scope.
Step 5. Regular retrospectives
They provide an opportunity for the product team to reflect on their progress, identify areas for improvement, and make changes to the product backlog as needed. It is also essential to regularly conduct retrospective meetings that enable the product team to reflect on the previous sprint and identify areas for improvement. This will help the team identify inefficiencies in the product development process and improve the overall effectiveness of the agile approach.
Step 6. Test and deploy
Select the most important features and create a minimum viable product (MVP). Test the MVP with customers and stakeholders and make changes as needed. Analyze and refine: measure the effectiveness of the product, and refine it based on customer feedback.
4 tips for managing products in an agile way
Agile product management is not just a set of processes but also a set of best practices. Here are some of the best practices that should be followed to ensure success in agile product management:
1. Prioritize customer feedback
It is essential to listen to and prioritize customer feedback in order to ensure that the product being developed meets their needs and expectations. This can be achieved through regular customer research and incorporating feedback into the product backlog.
Define a cohesive, minimal theme or activity and get a few users to execute that strategy as quickly as possible (no more than a month). Each set of activities is informed by the work on product visioning with features but is not connected to or dependent on it in any way directly.
This not only eliminates feature creep completely, it allows you to focus on a minimal implementation of a go-to-market strategy that's simultaneously top-down and bottom-up, allowing for rich collaboration all around.
2. Know which feature to prioritize
As a product manager, you’ll have to make certain tough decisions. For example, you might have to decide between a feature that might make one long-term, high-paying customer happy at the expense of 120 other customers.
Or you might have to choose between maintaining a product's reputation versus scaling features to align with business goals. At the end of the day, it’s your call to make. Learn to develop thick skin. Weighing the pros and cons on each side will help you make a practical decision.
3. Encourage autonomy among team members
Encouraging open communication and teamwork can help to ensure that everyone is working together towards a common goal. It may surprise you to know that making every decision is not always your job. You should give your team members autonomy.
Empower them to make their own decisions. You could create guidelines and build context to assist them and let them handle the rest while you move on to more important things and come into the picture when they encounter a genuinely difficult problem.
4. Ask pointed questions
Product managers need to be abreast of everything that's going on in the team. There are times when a product manager will be dropped into the middle of an ongoing product. The product manager now has to learn everything he or she has missed.
How? By asking pointed questions. Take the initial months to engage with as many customers and internal stakeholders as possible. Try to understand their pain points, history, or even how they make decisions. This will help you to begin making your own decisions.
6 agile product management frameworks
There are several frameworks that can be used to implement agile product management, including:
Scrum is the most popularly used framework for agile product management. According to research by Scrum alliance, 61% of respondents from 76 countries report using it. It is centered around the concept of sprints, which are short, time-boxed iterations in which the product team works to deliver a set of features and functionality.
Kanban is a visual framework for managing work and can be used to implement agile product management. It uses a board with columns to represent different stages of the product development process and cards to represent individual items in the product backlog.
3. Lean software development
Lean is a framework that emphasizes optimizing development time and resources, continuous improvement, and minimizing waste. It can be used to implement agile product management by focusing on creating a lean product development process that delivers value to customers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
4. Extreme Programming (XP)
This framework aims to produce higher-quality software and a higher quality of life through responsiveness to changing customer requirements. It targets simplicity and speed with short development cycles.
5. Feature-Driven Development (FDD)
According to PlanView, an Agile methodology for developing software, Feature-Driven Development (FDD) is customer-centric, iterative, and incremental, with the goal of delivering tangible software results often and efficiently. FDD in Agile encourages status reporting at all levels, which helps to track progress and results.
6. Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
It’s an incremental approach that embraces continuous user input. The DSDM philosophy stems from the 80/20 rule. 80 % of an application is often delivered 20% of the time. Or simply enough work is needed for every increment to facilitate movement to the following increment.
Example companies using agile product management
According to research by Project Management Institute, 71% of surveyed companies admitted using Agile approaches sometimes, often, or always. Aside hugely popular companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon, these companies have adopted the agile product management technique.
From 3M’s perspective, its software development process previously relied on the traditional Waterfall method. However, this model was not serving them. So, they began using Agile with the Scrum framework, and it was well worth the effort.
They could now create self-organized teams to reach quickly to customer requirements and push priorities as they deemed fit.
ANZ is the third-largest bank in Australia that provides commercial and retail banking to its customers.
The CEO of ANZ announced an organization overhaul in favor of Agile with the sprint framework. “We were able to go from the idea of Apple Pay, the concept, to having something in the market that people could use in about 10 weeks,” he said. “That’s exactly the sort of thing we want to be able to do all the time.”
Ericsson's Media Gateway for Mobile Networks (M-MGw) was initially organized around component teams using the traditional model. Product knowledge was limited to only a few people, and organizational silos created long lead times and feedback loops.
Faced with increased competition, Ericsson adopted Agile and shortened release cycles. On top of increased efficiency and output, Ericsson transformed its thinking and process flow.
As the pilot teams shared their positive experiences with people outside those groups, enthusiasm grew, and the company scaled up to more than 15 self-organized teams ahead of its next release.
Fitbit was successfully using a Scrum approach to meet its rigid consumer holiday-driven product delivery schedule. But as their customer base grew, it became clear that they needed to scale.
They began with 12 teams and slowly added more as time went on. They saw an immediate increase in speed, cadence, and team effort. A year after releasing SAFe, Fitbit released four new products and shipped more than 22 million devices due to its successful scaling effort.
Thanks to Agile frameworks, development teams are able to test new products and obtain repeated client feedback that will help them scale. Development is no longer a detached, one-way affair where the product manager develops requirement specifications and ships them off to the next team.
It is now a dynamic process that allows all members of the development team to pitch in and help the product move forward. This is safer since individuals won't have to sit in the dark for months or years on end while hoping that the team designs the product correctly.