The Agile Product Owner Role

I’ve written a lot about “project management” and Agile projects – many people mistakenly assume that “project management” is not needed in an Agile project because there is no Project Manager at a team level. However, even though you may not see anyone with the title of “Project Manager”, the project management discipline is still needed. It’s just a different style of project management and the project management functions are distributed among several other roles rather than being performed by a dedicated Project Manager.

Product management” is another discipline that is equally important and is also often neglected. The role of a “Product Manager” is not well-understood – you typically find “product management” only in companies that market products for external sale such as Intuit Quicken or QuickBooks. You don’t typically see someone called a “Product Manager” associated with an internal IT application development project because the output of that kind of project might not be considered a real “product”. However, many of those applications are significant enough to be treated as a real “product”; and, although it may not justify a dedicated person with the title of “Product Manager”, some product management discipline is needed.

  • Sometimes a Business Analyst might take on some of those functions; however, a Business Analyst does not typically have the level of responsibility and decision-making authority of a true Product Manager.
  • A Project Manager might also take on some of those functions but many project managers are not trained to take on that role and many project managers may not have the decision-making authority to make the kind of business decisions that are needed. In a traditional development project, the Product Manager determines “what” will be built and the Project Manager typically determines the “how”.

Scrum has recognized the importance of this business direction and has created the “Product Owner” role to put more emphasis on providing that kind of discipline and business direction. The Product Owner in an Agile project actually takes on a number of functions that would normally be performed by both a “Project Manager” and a “Product Manager” in a traditional development project. That is actually a huge amount of responsibility that is not fully understood in many cases. When I took a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) course some years ago, it primarily focused on the mechanics of how the Scrum process works and what the Product Owner role is in that process. It was taken for granted that the students knew enough about both project management and product management to perform those functions in the context of an Agile/Scrum project.

In my experience, the Product Owner in an Agile project is a business person who has been thrust into that role and doesn’t necessarily understand all of the requirements and experience required by that role. The Product Management discipline and functions, in particular, typically are not well-understood because it has often been neglected in traditional development projects. Wikipedia.com defines “Product Management” as follows:

“The role may consist of product development and product marketing, which are different (yet complementary) efforts, with the objective of maximizing sales revenues, market share, and profit margins. The product manager is often responsible for analyzing market conditions and defining features or functions of a product. The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical and varies based on the organizational structure of the company. Product management can be a function separate on its own, or a member of marketing or engineering.”

“While involved with the entire product lifecycle, the product management’s main focus is on driving new product development. According to the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), superior and differentiated new products — ones that deliver unique benefits and superior value to the customer — are the number one driver of success and product profitability.”

In a company that develops IT applications for internal use, this same general discipline is needed but it is focused on maximizing the business value that the application provides for the company rather than maximizing the revenue from external sales of the product.

As I’ve mentioned in some of my other blog posts, Agile is forcing us to redefine what we think of as “project management” and this is another example of that. The “Product Owner” role is actually a combination of some “project management” and “product management” discipline. Many project managers seem to think of becoming a Scrum Master as a way of migrating their skills into an Agile project but that may not be the best use of a project manager’s skills. A project manager who has an Agile mindset and also has some strong business domain knowledge might be a very good candidate to migrate into the Product Owner role and that would probably be a better use of their skills than becoming a Scrum Master.

That may be a significant increase in responsibility for some project managers but it seems to be very consistent with my thinking about “The Next Generation of Project Management” where the project manager takes on a new emphasis of driving business value rather than simply managing the scope, costs, and schedules of a project.

What’s the Difference Between a Project and a Process?

I’ve been working on a document called “The Next Generation of Project Management”:

“The Next Generation of Project Management”

The motivation for creating this document is to help close the gap between Agile and traditional project management. (See my previous blog post on that subject here) In order to close that gap, I believe that we need to rethink what a “project” is and what “project management” is in broader terms that are inclusive of both Agile and traditional project management.

However, there is a danger of broadening the definition of a “project” and “project management” so far that almost anything could be a “project” and that would make it meaningless. For example: Is an effort to provide ongoing maintenance and enhancements for a product a “process” or a “project”. I think it could be both because “projects” and “processes” are very inter-related. To eliminate potential confusion, I think we need clearly-defined and objective criteria for drawing a line between what is a “process” and what is a “project”.

I did some research on this topic and I’ve summarized some information I found in several web sites on this topic below:

[table id=1 /]

Here’s a similar distinction between “process management” and “project management”:

[table id=2 /]

Please let me know if you agree with these distinctions or if there is anything else that should be added.

Closing the Gap Between Agile and Traditional Project Management

Most people will agree that there is a fairly large gap between the Agile community and the Project Management community – Agile and traditional project management are essentially treated as two separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two and that has led to some polarization between those two communities:

  1. On the Agile side, many Agile people think of “project management” as a bad word and see no need for it in an Agile project. The fact is that although you may not find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” in an Agile project, there’s lots of “project management” going on – its just a different style of project management and the functions are distributed among a number of people:
    • The Product Owner in a Scrum project performs many project management functions by setting the direction and priorities for the project and making decisions as the project progresses
    • The Scrum Master performs some project management functions by facilitating the team and the process as well as resolving obstacles
    • Everyone on an Agile team performs some very basic project management functions in planning and managing their own work and the work of the team as a whole
    • The important lesson to learn from this is that:

      “(project) management is a function, not a role”.
      (Daniel Mezick originally coined that phrase, in this blog post).

      Just because you don’t see anyone with the formal title of “Project Manager” doesn’t mean that there is no project management going on.

  2. On the Project Management side, PMI has created the ACP certification that recognizes Agile as an alternative form of project management; however:
    • That certification doesn’t go far enough to define what Agile Project Management is and how someone would use it in a typical project that might require blending Agile and traditional project management principles and practices to fit the situation.
    • PMI needs to go a lot further to develop a broader concept of what “project management” is that fully embraces both Agile and traditional project management roles.

    Many of the definitions in PMBOK such as what a “project” is and what “project management” is are based heavily on a traditional, plan-driven approach to project management and really wouldn’t apply to an Agile project. For that reason, it’s very understandable why someone in the Agile community would have the perception that traditional project management principles and practices don’t apply to Agile at all.

In order to close this gap, I think it is essential to rethink some of the things we’ve taken for granted about project management for a long time to develop a new vision for “project management” that embraces both Agile and traditional plan-driven project management principles and practices. Agile and Traditional Project Management approaches need to be perceived as complementary rather than competitive approaches that are also capable of being blended together as necessary to fit a situation rather than being binary, mutually-exclusive choices.
I’ve recently drafted a document entitled “The Next Generation of Project Management” which outlines some of the more significant shifts in thinking that I think are needed and I’ve shared a preliminary draft of this document with some key people in PMI with some recommendations for what I believe needs to be done. That document has generated a lot of interest and some excellent comments and I’ve updated it to reflect the comments I received. Please take a look at it and let me know if you agree with this vision and recommendations:

“The Next Generation of Project Management”

The Next Generation of Project Management

I’m sure that many of the readers of this blog will agree that there is a fairly large gap between traditional project management and Agile principles and practices. Those two disciplines are treated as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two and one of my key objectives has been to help bridge this gap.

I believe that a large part of this gap can be attributed to perceptions that are based on many stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about what “Agile” is and what “project management” is that require some re-thinking to bridge the gap that exists between these two disciplines. Some of these issues may be more perception than reality, but there is also some level of reality behind these perceptions. Here are a couple of examples of these perception issues:

  • PMI and PMBOK are perceived as heavily focused on traditional, plan-driven project management. That is a strong perception, but there is certainly some amount of reality behind it – while the PMI efforts to implement the ACP certification are excellent, they don’t go far enough to reverse that perception. The PMI-ACP certification recognizes Agile as an alternative to a traditional project management approach; however, there’s really not much guidance on what people can do with it in actual practice other than broadening their knowledge of what Agile is. Until we can better define what “Agile Project Management” is and really demonstrate how traditional plan-driven project management and Agile principles and practices can be blended together in the real world, the role of an “Agile Project Manager” will be undefined and it will be difficult to reverse this perception.
  • Another perception issue is that there is no “project management” in a pure Agile project because you probably won’t find anyone with the title of “Project Manager” on an Agile team. The project management functions are there – it’s just a different style of project management and the project management functions have been distributed among the members of the team instead of being done by a single person with the title of “Project Manager”. In order to reverse this perception, we need to adopt a broader view of what “project management” is.

I’ve summarized some of the blog posts I’ve written on this subject in a document and I’ve provided a draft of this document to PMI to help influence their thinking on this topic. I would like to continue to refine this document and broaden the participation in it so that it doesn’t reflect just my own opinion. Please look over the draft document on “The Next Generation of Project Management” that I’ve started and provide any additional thoughts and suggestions:

“The Next Generation of Project Management”

If you agree with the thoughts and suggestions in this document but don’t have any suggestions for additions, it would be helpful to indicate your support by replying to this blog post. I will, of course, acknowledge the participation of anyone who contributes to this effort.

Thanks in advance for your help!