A Product Manager is an Agile Leader

July 26, 2011

As I’ve been gaining some very early experience in product management, I’ve noted some interesting parallels between the skills of a good product manager and a good manger, especially an Agile manger.

For example, one common refrain that I’ve picked up on from other product managers is that product managers need to lead people that do not report to them. They typically cite the challenge of being responsible for a product and counting on the cooperation and efforts of others that they don’t have direct authority over. Product managers, you’re not alone in this!

Functional managers whose direct reports are a part of self-directed, autonomous teams that Agile development espouses have a similar issue. Granted, in the end a manager does have influence over performance ratings and pay, but if a functional manager is respecting to the boundary conditions of autonomous, self-directed Agile teams, then that functional manager should not have any greater influence over the day-to-day work than a product manager does.

To be effective, product managers and functional managers using Agile development must establish a partnership; the only difference is in the nature of each respective role that provides a different context. A functional manager may work with a ScrumMaster to advise or coach him or her on the nature of Agile leadership, or coach individual participants to improve their knowledge and execution in a technical specialty. In contrast, a product manager must establish a partnership with the team to build the right product – with the product manager bringing the problem and need to the team and collaborating on shaping the final solution.

Like a functional manager, a product manager must also work across organizational boundaries where direct authority can be equally lacking (depending upon your management title and role within the organization). As a product manager, it is necessary to gain support for certain product decisions, even when others may not agree with your call.

How can you accomplish this? By being transparent about the entire process; it is not uncommon as a manager or product manager to deal with conflicting, sometimes polarized points of view. As a manager, I’ve certainly contended with a fair share of lobbying and myopic perspectives, and I’m certainly aware that product managers deal with the same issues on a product level.

It takes extra time, but it is vitally important to let people be heard. Talk through their points so that you truly understand their perspective and so that they come away feeling that you have not only heard them, but grasped precisely where they are coming from. Deep listening and discussion builds trust, and who knows, you may have your own pre-conceived notions changed in the process!

It is also useful for people to gain a perspective on the various inputs and points of view that you are contending with – either hearing them firsthand or reading about them because you took the time to clearly document those views so that people can understand what you as a product manager are contending with.

It’s all about letting people see into your world, including your thought process and insights on how you arrived at a decision. In the final analysis it is your job as a product manager – like a manager – to sift through the various points of view, develop options, weigh each one and make a call.

If you have to make a call that doesn’t work for everyone, let them know what went into that call and support your decision with the facts. And be prepared for some robust discussion about the weighting you gave certain business criteria – which may be different than someone else’s – like senior management’s.

Commitment, continuous learning, a collaborative/partnering approach, thoroughness, making and taking responsibility for decisions, openness – these are the traits that others will pull others in and help to create winning teams that build winning products. Product managers, don’t worry about not having direct lines of authority. Agile leadership doesn’t need it, and neither do you!

3 comments

SpeedStar said...

As a product manager myself, I have to admit I learned a lot from reading this article. It seems I have a lot to learn. Thank you for opening my eyes to that fact.

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September 5, 2011 at 5:02 AM
Dave Moran said...

@SpeedStar,

I'm delighted that you found this perspective informative! I'm learning the product management ropes myself, but my experience as an agile development manager does seem to have equipped me for the product management role.

I have also found that there are some great books out there on product management. I'll review them from time to time on this blog.

September 7, 2011 at 5:54 AM

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