Agile · Bridge · Communication · Product management

Communication is key

I started this new set of blog postings about the top ten responsibilities of great product owners by talking about the role of strong product managers.  I know that in some product organizations one person plays both of these roles, balancing her time and energy among the many strategic and tactical tasks that link engineers and end users.  I am also aware that in many ways the role of product owner is specific to the Agile development methodology; for software development firms using a traditional waterfall method to define and design products a product manager would pass ideas to a business analyst who would then write up specifications and hand those over to developers for coding and testing.  A product owner – engaged on a daily basis as part of the development team while keeping a close connection with the product manager to gain market intelligence – serves an important bridge function on an Agile scrum team that has no clear counterpart in a more traditional approach to software development.

In the firm I work with currently we are honing our understanding of how to excel as a product organization and the best way to define the roles of product managers and product owners.

Which brings up an important point.  Even as I try to set down my own thoughts on the role of product owners I am still learning about this stuff, figuring out how to think about it and connecting with other folks who have been doing this much longer than I have.  Over the next few weeks as I lay out what I think are ten crucial areas for product owners to think about, I know that in truth it’s not that simple.  I have only one limited perspective on all of this.  And while my family and co-workers know how much I like to talk to myself, the reason I am writing this blog isn’t just because setting my thoughts down helps me organize them.  I eagerly welcome your feedback.  Tell what I’m missing, share your own insights, and point me to good ideas from other people.  I started this blog in the hopes that I might contribute to a conversation in which we can all learn from each other.  I already know what I think so please share your thoughts.  Comment here so others can see what you’re thinking, connect with me on twitter (@asbiv), post links to this blog so even more people can add their wisdom, and let’s all try to help each other grow.

In any event, at my current firm as we wrestle with the right way to spell out the responsibilities of product managers and product owners one important point regularly rises to the surface: communication is key.  I wrote in my last blog posting that one of the central responsibilities of good product managers is work closely with product owners.  Here I want to talk about this same topic from the other direction.  Excellent product owners cultivate regular and clear communication with product managers.

While hopefully product owners and managers work well and communicate regularly across many topics, three main areas for communication are crucial; product managers and owners must talk together about the big picture, the development process, and product support.

  1. When talking about the big picture, product owners depend upon product managers and their wealth of market knowledge to learn about real user needs.  Effective products solve identified user problems and so knowledge about potential users and their specific needs is crucial in the development of good products – along with knowledge about the ways that competitors are either meeting or failing to meet those needs.  Together product managers and owners translate these user needs into a product roadmap – a prioritized plan for building and enhancing the product over time.  This big picture view of what to build and when to introduce specific new features becomes further refined into individual sprint plans so that the development team has clear direction on what to work on when.
  2. Once product managers and owners have discussed the big picture, their conversation shifts to focus on the development process itself.  Here the key elements of discussion involve the product owner keeping the product manager fully apprised on the status of the development process relative to the sprint plan and product roadmap.  At times this involves talking together about the necessary trade-offs required in any software development process.  I will write more in a few weeks about how the reality of feature plans, time commitments, and limited funding forces trade-offs among these factors in developing software; for now it’s enough to say the product owners and managers must talk together about these trade-offs so that both agree with the decisions being made.
  3. As products develop and go to market, product managers and owners must also talk consistently about supporting those products through both the sales process and once they are in the hands of users.  This means that the product manager must be well-versed on changes during the recent development sprint so that she can inform both the sales and marketing teams about new features to promote and the support team about potential new questions from users.  The communication between product owners and managers regarding product support must also entail developing a release strategy designed to ensure that features and fixes are provided in ways that consistently enhance the user experience.

Ensuring strong and regular communication with product managers is the first key responsibility of effective product owners.  Talking frequently together about the big picture, the development process, and product support helps to avoid the problems that come with a failure to communicate (and no one wants this:  Finding time in the midst of busy schedules for this consistent communication is vital for developing strong products, but of course in truth it’s not that simple.


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