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Fire Your Product Manager

3 October 2013

Scrum misfits

As a blogging product owner, I frequently run into Scrum misfits, either through responses on my blog or through the PO job descriptions I always check (no, I am not on the market). One of the typical misfits is in the role of the product owner/manager. Hence my advice to fire your product manager. I do understand that this statement requires some more explanation.

Recently I ran into a company that was looking for a "producer." In that role you are responsible for writing stories, syncing with the product manager, and staying in contact with the team. Kind of a linking pin.

Think of what kind of effects this can have. The first thing that directly jumps to mind is delay in communication. Who has to make a decision if the team runs into an impediment? Most likely the PM, so a question has to be relayed and discussed in two steps. However, a question coming out of the team requires an answer within the same working day, or the team can fail the sprint.

Another thing that will happen is Waterfall-like writing of stories. The PM wants to judge whether all the ideas are completely covered before the project kicks off, so that once the project runs he doesn't need to be bothered. As a result, you will build the product in fragments till all stories are done, instead of starting of with vague idea, validating it, and then building up the product in more detail, while continuously verifying whether you are still aligned with your target market. The result is that a project creates a lot of waste.

Another important point of pain that can be found in this situation involves trust. The chance that there is a good relationship between the PM and the team is small. The producer is the linking pin, and he has to let the ideas land at the team. He has to tell the PM that the team thinks that an idea doesn't take any technical limitations into consideration. The producer has to tell the team again that things just need to be done in whatever way. Caught between a rock and a hard place, this poor producer is doing Scrum with all the pain of Waterfall.

Why hire a producer?

Why would this company be looking for a producer? I can come up with two reasons. The first one would be that the PM thinks he needs to be out there full time. That the PM role exists of only visiting customers, exhibitions, and conventions. In that case . . . fire your product manager and hire a business developer.

Another possibility is that the current PM is not capable of communicating with the team. Or, worse, he thinks he is not a part of the team. In that case . . . fire your product manager and hire a product owner.

Tough job

The PO has to have that rare mix of understanding technology and being a marketer. It is somebody who is capable of bridging the two worlds, speaking both languages, and interfacing between them. The good thing is that this combination is, in general, linked with creativity. And that is exactly the other important characteristic of a PO.

The Scrum process requires a product owner who is and feels like part of the team. There should be no distance between the team members and the PO, even if the PO is in a different location. No barriers. Also, throughout the sprint the PO remains responsible for the functionality that is created. So it is essential that the PO can look over the shoulder of team members (or share a screen). Functional issues during the demo are the responsibility of the PO, not the team (bugs are a different story, of course). And besides all that, the PO does need to be out there, visiting customers, exhibitions, and conventions. It's a tough job!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Tom De Cubber, CSM,CSPO, 10/6/2013 7:10:34 AM
Hi Emile,

You don't need a product manager, you need a product OWNER who takes OWNERSHIP and who cares about the product to be developed.

Once your Product Owner really takes this ownership, (s)he will automatically get into the mode of guiding the development team and make sure that (s)he gets all possible feedback from the team on the development of the product to get the best possible result (which is the real concern of the Product Owner and of the development team).

In order to be accepted by your team, you need to be part of them: only real participation and focus on a common target makes a group believe in their mission and have them go for it.

So for me the PO indeed needs to have a rare mix of competentions: above the technology and marketing knowledge already mentioned, it's also about people and group dynamics. In addition to your technical skills, you also have to be a group leader and inspirator with good people skills.

Only this way, you will be able to catch all feedback your development team sends to you. And yes, there will always be some technological nerds who have difficulties in communicating their vision in a decent or comprehensible way, so learn to deal with them too.

The Product Owner has to have the vision on what can be an outstanding product, the way of interaction with the development team determines if you are able to deliver the outstanding product.

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