Adam Bullied has a post last week entitled “Are agile PMs baloney?”
First off, great title. No burying the lede here. You can read the post on Adam’s site, here’s the key point he makes:
My belief has always been, product management doesn’t change that much regardless of whether you are in tech (B2B or B2C), consumer products (like soap or fabric softener), cars, electronics, etc… Essentially it all boils down to the exact same things: you have a market, and they have a problem. You are charged with crafting the most ideal way to solve that problem, and then making that vision a reality.
Regardless of HOW those charged with executing that vision (or building the requirements) choose to do that, your paradigm doesn’t change. Developers can be working in waterfall, or they can be working in agile. You, as a product manager, shouldn’t care.
This is really interesting, as I wrote the following in one of my first posts on Agile:
Keep in mind, Agile/Scrum is a DEVELOPMENT methodology. It is a great model for developers and engineers and other R&D team members to work and communicate more efficiently. There are very clear benefits to this model. It provides greater visibility into current work status, work remaining, can identify development hurdles earlier and can communicate them outward more easily.
But, in the end, it is still a development methodology. It should have minimal impact on Product Management’s job as a cross-functional leader marshaling the product from development through marketing, sales etc.
Now the remarkable thing about Adam’s post was the sheer number of comments generated; almost as many as a Failblog post! There was also a lot of passion evident in many of the comments. I even got into the act with a few choice comments myself! (here and here).
But not everyone agreed.
A shot across the bow?
Shortly thereafter, the folks at Enthiosys posted an article on their blog entitled: How To Sound Smart (But Be Really Naive) About Dramatic Changes in Technology
I know both Adam and the team at Enthiosys personally. I like and respect them all, but I’m going to have to take sides here, as this issue of Agile (or agile) and Product Management is something that I’ve blogged on quite extensively.
First off, the title of the Enthiosys post comes across like an ad hominem attack on Adam. Maybe it wasn’t meant that way but it sure sounded like it to me.
The author of the post states:
I’d reframe his question (“Are agile PMs Baloney?”) into something meatier: “Do radically different ways of building software radically change how software product managers do their job, and how does this change our thinking about delivering value to the market?”
So, that’s actually a very different and rather pointed question, not simply reframing the original question.
I also think that the reframed question implicitly pigeonholes the focus of product management into something far less than it actually is.
Let’s start with an analogy
The Enthiosys post continues with the following example:
Suppose I was an industrial designer working in the early 1950’s. My job? Creating new tools for machine shops. My tools? Pencil and paper. Clay and wood prototypes. My development process? Relatively slow. Feedback loops? Long. To compensate, I work as much experimentation into my process as I could, but, let’s face it: there was only so much experimentation that I could try.
Fast forward to today. I’m still an industrial designer making tools for machine shops. Except now I’m not using pencil and paper, I’m using a sophisticated CAD-CAM system. I might be using wood and clay, but chances are good that I’m printing my prototypes. My development process? Fast. Feedback loops? Short. My ability to experiment with alternatives, and to use experiments with customers, is so easy that I find myself naturally collaborating throughout my process.
Now, ask yourself: Has the job of the industrial designer changed?
My response…Darayush’s words
First an answer to the question. I’ll quote from one of the comments on the Enthiosys post left by Darayush Mistry:
The job of an industrial engineer hasn’t changed. The tools have. An industrial engineer with good fundamental skills would be just as effective in the 1950’s as today. A good cook will be just as effective regardless of the tools, cause cooking is all about understand the fundamentals of how ingredients mix/blend/cook at various temperatures rather than the hi-tech gas range and ovens.
I fully agree with Darayush on this point.
My response…my words
Second, the analogy of the industrial designer is not a good one. The difference between Agile development and previous development methods and their relationship to Product Management is not the same as the difference between pen/paper/wood/clay and CAD/CAM systems and the relationship to an industrial engineer.
Why? The industrial engineer is NOT analogous to a product manager. The engineer will build a prototype or tool based on requirements or specifications provided to him/her. Someone had to decide and define what new tools were needed, what purpose they’d serve etc. If it was the industrial engineer, he/she would have done this BEFORE creating anything in pen/paper/wood/clay or using CAD/CAM.
Once the engineer has those requirements or specifications, they can certainly create prototypes and designs faster with CAD/CAM tools, but at that point, they’re functioning in a role more like a product designer or a developer.
Third, and I think this is really important, the product management relationship with product development is only one aspect of the role. Product Managers must be focused on the business success of their product, not simply the “manufacturing” of it.
Finally, I think it’s very important that Product Managers in the high-tech community understand that they have a critical business role to play in the success of their companies. There are a lot of obstacles in the paths of these Product Managers. The profession is still young and not well understood. There are few if any good preparatory programs to equip Product Managers with the tools and skill sets they need to be successful. Power politics in companies weigh heavily on the success of Product Managers. With these and other obstacles in the way, the last thing Product Managers should be doing is attaching potentially confusing or misleading terms such as “agile” or “Agile” to themselves.
What happens a few years from now when the focus on “Agile/agile” diminishes in the Development community? What happens when the next new and innovative and hyper-efficient software development model comes out? Will a new adjective need to be attached to the title “Product Manager”?
Product Management needs to be defined on it’s own terms. We as a community need to take that responsibility on ourselves. Tying our profession to what is fundamentally a software development methodology, no matter how potentially applicable it’s core principles may be to other domains, is not the right thing to do. It will not bring clarity of the purpose and full value of Product Management to others.
I argue (quite successfully I must say :-)) in this post, that Product Management has always been agile and that it is Development that is finally understanding the value of being nimble, adaptable to change, not tied into rigid methodologies etc. The Agile Manifesto was a call for change in the Software Development community, not the Product Management community. Let’s keep that clearly in mind.