How many times have you been working on a project where it is obvious that nobody understands the big picture? You just keep building things in the name of progress without any vision to where things are going beyond the current sprint. Who is responsible for understanding why particular features are more important than another or why are you building this product and not another product altogether?
Enter the most misunderstood role on the development team, the product manager/product owner(PM from here on out). Too many times organizations try to be ‘agile’ so they use the title without really understanding the purpose. In my experience this is especially a problem in bigger organizations that have difficulty really empowering a team to do what is needed. Many times because of politics and control the role gets bungled and unless you have a strong individual at this position projects have a tendency to just wander and never have a clear direction.
These people are not product managers:
- Team Managers – This is the most common example I see in large teams. The person who is responsible for the team gets the product manager role. While this can be done in the right circumstances, it’s not generally the best for the team or the product. Many times team managers have multiple development products under their watch so they can’t put the focus needed on the product management role. Beyond this, it is important that people on the development team can push back on product management if they don’t agree and this becomes more difficult if you report to the person making all the decisions.
- Business Analysts – It seems like a lot of times companies look at business analysts and say, well you can talk to the business and you can talk to the engineering team so you must be a product manager. It’s not enough to be able communicate with both sides, the PM really must understand the technology side of things in a way that they understand what is possible and how to move from zero to an end product and in most cases the BA doesn’t have that vision.
- Lead Developer – In the same way the BA lacks in development knowledge, many times the lead developer lacks in understanding of the business and how to prioritize features based on business value. Beyond this, in cases where the lead developer does have the aptitude most times this person is busy focusing on how to execute the plan that he or she can’t step back and keep the big picture in mind.
- Project Manager – Another common misconception. I think it’s because the initials for both are PM. Project managers tend to be good at task tracking and making sure the right resources are on the right teams, but many times again they lack the vision to set direction for an entire product.
- Nobody – Sadly another common occurrence on development teams is they just don’t have a PM. The thought could be magnanimous and the management wants to ultimately empower the team, or it could be ignorance or over-simplification of the details needed to build the product (management never oversimplifies things). Teams will many times make progress in these situations, but with no high level view of the future most projects meander and don’t provide the value they could with strong product leadership.
All of that said, anybody in the roles listed above can be a good PM. It’s just not common for that to be the case. On smaller teams and in startups you have to wear many hats and sometimes the PM is also the BA or sometimes the PM has to be the lead developer. In many early stage startups the founder and CEO is the PM, which makes sense because presumably they had the idea for the company and should be the one setting product direction. But as teams scale beyond a certain point (this is fully dependent on the complexity of the product and the team in place), it becomes necessary for a single person to be responsible for the direction of your product.
The next part of this series will discuss what a PM should look like.