Agile · Bridge · Communication · Decision making · Leadership · Planning · Product management

The role of strategic thinking

I came across this quote in a book several of us are reading in my firm:

The job [of the product manager/product owner] is to maintain and promote the product vision.  In practice, this means documenting the vision, sharing it with stakeholders, incorporating feedback, generating features and stories, setting priorities for release planning, providing direction for the team’s on-site customers, reviewing work in progress, leading iteration demos, involving real customers, and dealing with organizational politics. (The Art of Agile Development, James Shore and Shane Warden, 2008)

This set of responsibilities – which corresponds well to the framework for product management that Pragmatic Marketing lays out here – outlines the core strategic functions of a product leader.  Whether the person exercising this role is called a product manager (the title we and some other companies use and that fits with general XP practice and Pragmatic Marketing) or a product owner (the title typical Scrum practice uses), she carries the strategic direction for the product.  Her job is to think big picture, to know the market well enough to define core problems to be solved through product development and to understand internal decision making well enough to navigate issues of resourcing and politics.

Carrying out this strategic role effectively requires a mix of practical and people skills in addition to curiosity about understanding the market and solving problems.  It also requires a strong tactical person working alongside the product manager as a true partner and not just a sidekick (think this and not this).  Whether translating market problems into discrete user stories for developers to address or communicating technical tradeoffs to the right stakeholders when decisions about direction are needed, a tactical teammate enables the product manager to stay focused on pressing strategic issues.

Which brings me to my role.  The company where I work currently calls this a product owner and much of what I do is tactical.  Similar to what a scrum master does I facilitate our daily scrum meetings, organize and help lead both our planning meetings and our retrospectives, provide subject matter expertise or pull in insights from those inside and outside the company to provide this expertise when it is needed, and generally make myself available to the design and development teams.  At the same time I also work closely with the product manager and the sales team to understand what issues are emerging in the market, to sort through priorities for future development, and to test what we are building to make sure that it meets the identified business needs

Regardless of the title (and I’ve been called a lot of different things over the years) the image I regularly return to in describing my job is that of bridge builder.  I need to understand and communicate well with both the development team and the business team, helping folks discuss benefits and tradeoffs during the process of creating, marketing, and supporting our products.  I am ‘in the trenches’ with our coders, designers, and testers making sure that they know what to work on next and can get answers to questions they have; and I am often on the ground with the sales and support teams learning up close what potential clients are wrestling with and what aspects of our product don’t work as smoothly as we hope.  In the midst of what can be very tactical and specific I also poke my head up to the strategic level from time to time to ensure that our incredibly talented development team is adding the features and fixes that the product manager has identified as most important.  There is a lot about the product owner role in my firm that is tactical in nature, but in truth it’s not that simple.

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