Nov 10, 2007 3 min read

A Planetary View of Agile Product Management

A Planetary View of Agile Product Management
Photo by NASA / Unsplash

Product management is involved with most internal groups, but not equally and not all at the same time. PMs need to exert enough gravitational pull to keep each organization in its correct orbit, and still save some energy for customers. So let’s give our planetary analogy a spin.

Starting with Engineering…

In the traditional waterfall model, a typical project is scheduled for 9 months, but inevitably takes a year to complete. So we’ll assign classic software development groups to Earth in our product solar system, with a 365 day cycle. A starting place that’s warm, comfortable, and not surprisingly lines up with annual budgeting. Product Managers have some “pull” in the development process, but at a distance: we send out MRDs and PRDs to shed light on customer requirements, knowing that a lot is filtered out by the R&D atmosphere.

The move to Agile brings Engineering much closer: think about Mercury in its 88 day orbit. With sprints every two to four weeks and quarterly releases, we’ve seen a dramatic acceleration of the development process. PM is now a daily partner in every aspect of product creation, exerting much more pull to keep Engineering on course. Product managers now have a lot more to do – iteration planning and review meetings, backlog rankings, retrospectives – to keep things spinning. User stories and requirements arrive more often, in smaller chunks, as the team needs. So the Agile planet is faster, hotter, more nimble, as long as a good product manager is providing a tight focus.

Other important organizations

A company’s biggest groups are Sales and Marketing. Regardless of your development process, they are far away from the details of product creation. The obvious choices are Jupiter and Saturn: large, distant, with massive budgets and extremely long planning cycles. Editorial calendars, trade shows and branding campaigns may be booked 1-2 years ahead, and enterprise selling cycles can be glacial. (Let’s match Marketing to Saturn, since rings attract creative types, and Sales to Jupiter, the gas giant.)

Product folks need to remember that messages to distant planets take a long of time, even at Internet speeds, and the payload has to be small. Therefore, we need to repeatedly send short, simplified messages to Sales and Marketing rather than detailed, time-sensitive feature lists. Hefty documents often arrive late and become space debris.

Occasionally, individual sales reps act like Halley’s Comet, flying by with a hot opportunity. They spent most of their time with distant customers, but sometimes need your help closing a complex deal. Comets move fast, so you’ll need to make a quick judgment whether this opportunity is a good fit for your product: Agile provides an opportunity to adjust your backlog and release plans. In any case, you may not see this particular rep for another 75 years.

Some other important functions are in danger of being treated like Pluto: considered frozen wastelands and downgraded to sub-planet stature. This might include Tech Support or Manufacturing or even QA. If you see this, remember that PMs can make a big difference by shining a light on their accomplishments and including them in appropriate meetings. A little light and warmth from PM can change the company climate.

Finally, Finance and Legal: a pair of asteroids that need to be mapped and managed to avoid a surprise impact. Keep them in the loop. You may discover something valuable beneath their battered, pock-marked exteriors.

PM has the challenge of keeping different organizations in their respective orbits and preventing collisions. Cycle times vary dramatically. Since cross-functional communications can be slow, send out capsule updates early and often.

Sound Bytes

Product Managers exert the most influence over development, and Agile makes this even stronger. We need to stay connected with other groups, pulling each along the path to success. Done right, we drive alignment behind great products.

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