Last week we covered how to leverage Agile principles for more effective product management. This week we’ll discuss how to staff the product management function appropriately to best serve your organization’s product management needs.

Recall the pitfall to avoid when transitioning product managers into Agile. You need to think of two key roles to staff:

  • Agile Product Manager – focused on the business aspects and the market at-large, tasked with “Building the Right Features” to make a compelling product offering.
  • Product Owner – embedded in the Agile team, focused on delivering features to customers, tasked with “Building them (features) Right”.

Don’t get too hung up on actual titles – they get in the way – but rather focus on matching up people skills and passion to the tasks associated with each role.

Rigid organizational structures will make the product management shift to Agile a challenge, so getting executive support goes a long way. If you don’t have executive support, get agreement and clearly communicate the specific product management tasks you will focus on and those you won’t — and start thinking about who in the organization could help handle the product management gaps.

Most often, when I hear “we only have one person for both roles and she is doing just fine,” it is a case of a super(wo)man (slowly burning out) or a limited view of the product management discipline.

The only cases of “one person is enough” being successful were for a “simple” product (small development team, few customers) and for an established product in maintenance mode. On rare occasions, I have seen a proficient individual fulfill both roles for a subset of a product. That model relies on having several individuals proficient at both roles who also happen to share a common product vision across their product subset. If all those planets align, then this staffing model may work for you, but I would not start with it.

Over the past year, I have seen a significant number of customers adopting this Product Owner – Agile Product Manager pairing model. Several industry experts – Dean Leffingwell, Alan Shalloway, Rich Mironov – have been recommending it.

Here are my pragmatic recommendations based on over seven years of experience in various Agile Product Management positions.

The individual fulfilling the Product Owner role should:

1. Enjoy working closely with developers.

2. Be co-located with her development team (IM is no replacement for sitting with the team to build a strong bond).

3. Be adept at engaging with users to discuss enhancements to existing features.

4. Have a deep respect for the unpredictability of software development, e.g. acceptance that technical roadblocks surfacing at the least convenient time (Murphy’s Law).

5. Be comfortable making decisions with limited data (I still recall this quality from the Product Owner class I took from Mike Cohn many years ago). Need a decisive type for that role.

Empower whomever takes on the Product Owner role to be physically and mentally available to her team, and expect her to validate stories as soon as they are completed so her team gets credit for the hard work they delivered. Most importantly, avoid the urge to send her to trade shows, customer visits and other travel adventures, so she can remain fully available to her team. Pairing her with an Agile Product Manager tasked with gaining a deep understanding of the market and its target customers will provide her the “Voice of the Customer” to convey to her team.

The individual fulfilling the Agile Product Manager role should:

1. Enjoy working closely with customers, sales, marketing and the rest of the business

2. Position his product to industry analysts and other external stakeholders

3. Be proficient at energizing and enabling sales about his product

4. Be constantly tracking competitors’ moves

5. Have a deep understanding of customers’ problems to identify features with high market value (especially true when you adopt customer development)

Match individuals and product management roles carefully. Pick personalities compatible with the task at hand. As general guidance, analytical minds and detail-oriented folks tend to do well as product owners. Big picture, extroverted folks tend to do well as product managers. Business analysts can make great product owners, and sales engineers are a good fit for some of the agile product manager tasks, such as competitive analysis and sales enablement.

At Rally, we are a big fan of this pairing model: I fulfill the Agile Product Manager role for Rally Portfolio Manager, our product and portfolio management offering, and I am paired with product owner extraordinaire, Susan Rampson, with whom I share the product vision. Susan and I have weekly meetings when she shares her team view and I share my market view, where we agree on target delivery dates and feature sequencing. We sit close to each other to constantly interact. When we first paired over a year ago, we often had to remind each other of our respective role (“hey, let me do my job!”).Trust, shared product vision, constant communication and adherence to our role definition make us a frictionless fun and effective product management team.


Agile adoption does not mean the end of product managers as we know them. The biggest transition product managers face is embedding someone with product management experience into the development team. Adequately staffing and fulfilling the new product owner role, while not losing site of the strategic role of product management, is the key to changing product management to enable the Agile enterprise.

Organizations that try to “make do” with their current product managers without reassessing the new product management role (in light of agile needs) won’t fully reap the benefits of scaling agile to the enterprise. Those staffing the new product management roles effectively will put themselves in the envious situation of delivering competitive solutions to their markets.

For slideware on this topic, download the deck I co-presented with my long-term friend Jennifer Fawcett , owner of, at the last Denver Product Camp.

Join our webinar on Wednesday 9/12 where Catherine will discuss ways to define market value with industry thought leader, Steve Johnson.




>>>This post is the third in a series of three. 

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