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Does the Product Manager = Product Owner When Adopting Agile?

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Being a product manager in software companies has never been easy. If anything, every veteran product manager I know (yours truly included) describes their career as a love-hate relationship at best. The advent of Agile software development and the introduction of the product owner role caused even more headaches for a lot of Product Managers. Why?

Typically, one of two things happens when the development team goes Agile:

1.  The product managers are asked to fill the product owner role.

2.  The product owner roles is created in the development team and product management still exists outside the development team.

Just going from anecdotal evidence, it seems that #1 is much more common than #2. Both are problematic though. In the first case, the development team expects the product manager (PM) to suddenly fulfill the product owner (PO) role as described in their Scrum training while the rest of the business expects the PM to continue working with them just as before – you wind up with one foot in Agile and one foot in your “traditional” role and your overall workload increases significantly.

In the second case, the PM may be a dotted-line manager for the POs. I worked in one such environment, and it worked fairly well.  In fact, we wound up organically arranging ourselves in a relationship that some Scrum folks had already thought about. I’m talking about a PO team where there are multiple POs who report to a chief product owner (CPO) who ensures consistency in strategy, vision, and execution among the POs working on the same product or product line. I won’t bother rehashing someone else’s work here – you can just Google “chief product owner” to learn more.

The experience reminded me of what you might refer to as a strategic product manager vs. technical product manager relationship. And as you would probably guess, the CPO handles a lot of the higher-level stuff that many of us product managers have cried “B.S.” over in the PO role – like the mythic ability of POs to own profit and loss (P&L) and determine ROI on a feature by feature basis or do real roadmapping. That one always makes me laugh. And then cry. And then laugh some more.  I mentioned the love-hate thing, right?

One thing I would tweak if I found myself in that situation again – I would have the POs formally be a part of the PM organization. Why? POs need to eventually learn all the other “product management stuff” that Agile folks (and frankly, just about everyone else too) doesn’t realize that PMs do.  That’s an issue for another time.

Next in this series – we’ll talk about how product managers can be Agile.  And I don’t mean “work with Agile dev teams,” I mean use Agile-inspired principles and processes to do product management work.

How about your experience when your development team adopted Agile?  Did you pick-up the PO mantle or did you find yourself trying to co-exist with the new role? And does the CPO role sound like it could be a fit for your situation?

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