Agile Product Management: An Introductory Guide

When new, high-quality products are constantly emerging, one of the biggest challenges for product managers is staying competitive. What’s the best way of creating a software product that meets deadlines, keeps within budget, and ultimately meets customers’ needs? And all this within tight timeframes?

Agile product management has emerged as a unique way of helping product teams solve all these issues, responding quickly to changes in the market. While several Agile methodologies exist, each providing a slightly different framework for teams to work against, they all build upon the same core Agile principles.

In this article, we introduce the key aspects of Agile product management. We’ll explore its values, advantages, what tools are available to help you, and how you might get started using Agile in your product development approach.

We’ll cover:

  1. What is Agile product management?
  2. What is Agile flow?
  3. Advantages of Agile product management
  4. Agile product management tools
  5. What is the role of the product manager in Agile?
  6. Agile vs Waterfall product management
  7. What is SAFe?
  8. How to learn more about Agile product management

Ready to get the lowdown on Agile product management? Then let’s get going.

1. What is Agile product management?

Agile product management is an approach used to manage the product development lifecycle. Based on the principles of the Agile Manifesto, published in 2001, Agile involves breaking product development down into short, time-boxed periods of work known as sprints.

Using an iterative approach that emphasizes frequent collaboration between product teams, stakeholders, and customers and regularly reviewing and evaluating progress, teams can constantly improve their product development process. In theory, Agile also leads to higher-quality software products and faster releases.

According to the Agile Manifesto, its four core values are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Using these principles, Agile product management focuses on responding quickly to customer feedback and market changes. This means teams can adjust their product roadmap and strategy as the product development process evolves.

Agile product management is a way of thinking

While you’ll find the term coming up a lot in product development, it’s important to understand that Agile is not a product development framework itself. Rather, it’s a philosophy or set of principles. But using these principles, teams can use specific frameworks and sets of rules to help improve the way they work.

To illustrate, teams can use many agile product management frameworks to help them. Probably the best-known methodologies are Scrum, Lean, and Kanban.

While each incorporates the core principles of iteration, continuous learning, and high quality, they do so in their own idiosyncratic way. They’re all Agile methodologies, however, drawing on the Agile school of thought.

An agile team working together in a bright coworking space at their computers.

2. What is Agile flow?

OK, now we’ve got the basics down, let’s get into the specifics. One important aspect of the Agile product development approach is the Agile workflow. This term describes the process of breaking down a product development cycle into smaller, manageable chunks, which, as already mentioned, are known as sprints.

While the exact process varies between different methodologies, Agile flow broadly describes the way that teams should move from one step in the development cycle to the next. Based on the principle of continuous improvement, this means teams must regularly review their progress, learn from their mistakes and best practices, and use what they learn to improve their approach for the next sprint. 

Regardless of the specific methodology, Agile flow typically consists of three core steps:

1. Strategy and planning

This step involves conceiving a product idea and strategy, as well as developing a roadmap for its development. This happens at a high level at the beginning of each project, as well as before each sprint.

For individual sprints, strategy and planning involve the team agreeing on and setting timelines for tasks. Everybody on the product team needs to participate, as Agile emphasizes collaboration and communication.

The outcome of the initial strategy and planning session will typically be treated more as guidelines than gospel. This is because the strategy should be regularly reviewed and tweaked throughout the project.

2. Execution, experimentation, and testing

Next up, development begins. Each sprint involves developing a defined aspect of the product.

While the planning and strategy documents guide the product development team in their tasks, Agile embraces experimentation. The whole point of running short, time-boxed sprints is to create space for trying new approaches. If something goes well, that’s great! If not, then abandoning it will have minimal impact on the product lifecycle.

Each sprint also typically includes testing whatever you’ve developed for quality and bug fixes.

3. Release and review

Once a sprint is complete, it’s time to release the latest version of your product to your customer base or other stakeholders (those included will vary depending on the project).

Release and review involves gathering feedback from users, evaluating this feedback, and revising the product and/or development process accordingly.

What features are popular? Which ones are not? What could have gone better? Conducting this process at the end of each sprint helps teams keep their finger on the pulse of what customers want and need, while also improving collaboration.

While you may come across different versions of this process (some with more steps than others) they all ultimately follow the same outline. Regardless of the specific methodology, they should be applied to every sprint, repeating the process until the final product is released. This is the only way to remain consistent and continually improve your product.

3. Advantages of Agile product management

By now, some benefits of the Agile product development cycle should be clear. The principles of iteration and improvement alone are advantageous. However, Agile product management has other, less obvious advantages, too. 

Let’s take a look at some of the most important:

Faster time to market

A core aspect of Agile product management is that it’s designed to speed up the product development process. By breaking the development cycle down into sprints, teams can work on different aspects of the product simultaneously, quickly incorporating customer feedback.

This helps reduce the time to launch, meaning you can stay ahead of the competition.

Higher quality products

Another key aspect of Agile product management is that it encourages teams to experiment, test, and refine their product as it’s developed.

Not only will this identify potential issues early on, it ultimately ensures the resulting product is of a much higher quality than it might be using a more linear product management philosophy.

More customer-centric products

Regularly releasing product versions to customers means that teams are constantly learning from feedback. Essentially, they have a near-constant litmus test of new features, allowing them to quickly capitalize on opportunities or change track if necessary.

While this helps build a product that has real value for customers, it also reduces the risk of expensive redevelopment work further down the line.

Improved team collaboration

Lastly, Agile product management forces teams to collaborate much more closely on ideas, decisions, and tasks than they normally might. Breaking down so-called “silo thinking” ensures that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.

An agile product manager presents a whiteboard of charts to his team.

4. Agile product management tools

While the Agile Manifesto prioritizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools, that doesn’t mean you have to proceed without any help whatsoever!

Numerous tools and techniques exist to help you in your Agile product management. While the names and particulars of these tools vary depending on methodology, they largely follow the same principles.

Some good examples of generally applicable Agile product management tools include:

Burndown charts

These track the progress of a project over time and can be used to measure the amount of work remaining. Burndown charts help product managers to oversee sprints and ensure that their team stays on track.

User stories

These are short descriptions of a feature written from the perspective of a user. User stories are usually created by product managers (with input from customers or market research) and used by developers to better understand what they are building.

Product backlogs

This describes a list of all the features that need to be included in a product by the time the project is complete. A product backlog helps product managers prioritize tasks and ensures that the most important features are completed first.

Task boards

This is used to visually track tasks associated with product features. It’s typically represented as a grid, with tasks placed in columns according to their current status. 

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of tools (and different methodologies use slightly different approaches) this should give an idea of the kinds of things to look out for.

Due to Agile’s popularity, there are also now a variety of proprietary software suites available to help streamline things further. Many of these are specifically designed for Agile product management, though many are more generally applicable to software development.

Popular ones you might come across include Jira, Trello, and Asana, all of which help product teams collaborate better while tracking tasks, bugs, and other issues, too.

5. What is the role of the product manager in Agile?

For any Agile product management approach, the product manager is the key role. It’s their responsibility to maintain oversight of the development process, taking into account the different—often conflicting—needs of customers, the business, and the development team.

Broadly speaking, product managers must ensure that the team is following the process appropriately and delivering the right product at the right time. They’re also responsible for gathering customer feedback, setting product strategy, managing the product roadmap, and communicating with other stakeholders, such as senior executives.

Product managers are intimately involved with every step, from planning to execution. It’s their job to make the tough decisions and change direction if required.

In terms of specific tasks, product managers might do the following:

  • Setting product strategy and direction
  • Collecting customer feedback and requirements
  • Creating and maintaining product roadmaps
  • Working with developers to ensure product features are implemented according to the design
  • Prioritizing feature development
  • Conducting market research and competitor analysis
  • Managing timelines and budgets
  • Tracking product performance and metrics
  • Ensuring product quality
  • Working with stakeholders to promote the product
  • Working with other teams to ensure that the product aligns with its wider objectives

Sitting at the nexus of technology, business, and customer experience, the product manager is the essential thread that runs through the Agile process.

Taking responsibility for wider tasks allows the development team members to focus on the job at hand. Removing extraneous distractions is important in any project environment, but it’s especially vital in an Agile set-up, where time is of the essence.

6. Agile vs Waterfall product management

Naturally, we’ve talked a fair bit about Agile here (that’s the topic of discussion after all!) But what alternatives are there? A more traditional approach to product development involves a sequential development process known as Waterfall.

As opposed to Agile’s more cyclical, time-boxed approach, Waterfall uses a linear product development approach. This means each phase (design, development, testing, and release) must be complete before the next one can start. All requirements have to be clearly defined upfront. And while Waterfall still involves gathering customer feedback and making changes, these are typically made less frequently and less drastically than in Agile.

The main advantage of using the Waterfall approach is its structure. It allows for more accurate planning and forecasting.

However, this is also its main weakness. Waterfall is being increasingly edged out by the need to deliver higher-quality products faster. Its inherent limitations, such as inflexibility and limited customer feedback, mean it is becoming less applicable in today’s rapidly changing digital environment.

While Waterfall is still effective for projects where requirements are well-defined and are unlikely to change (such as small-scale software projects where the customer knows what they need), its lack of flexibility can lead to delays. This is true if the project scope changes unexpectedly. As such, Agile is often the preferred approach for modern software product development.

That said, don’t completely write it off—a 2022 survey by the PMI across a large amount of industries indicated that 56% of projects used this traditional approach, compared to 22% for Agile.

An agile product management professional hosts a virtual meeting with her team from her home office.

7. What is SAFe?

Most Agile methodologies—whether Scrum, Kanban, or Lean—are designed for smaller teams. That’s fine if you’re working in this type of environment, but what if you’re not? What if you’re managing product development on a larger scale, perhaps for an enterprise organization?

As Agile has increased in popularity, this question has plagued many product managers. In 2011, it led to the launch of a new approach called SAFe, which stands for Scaled Agile Framework.

SAFe is an Agile approach specifically designed to help bigger organizations (particularly those with multiple product teams, departments, and stakeholders) adapt standard Agile principles to the larger scale. It aims to encourage different parts of an organization to align on their overarching product vision while encouraging greater collaboration and communication.

While SAFe incorporates Agile principles, it also introduces new rules to help disparate teams collaborate more effectively. For instance,  it includes several specific roles and activities (such as Release Train Engineer and System Team) that are designed to help facilitate the Agile process at scale.

If you’re new to product management, you don’t need to worry about the specific ins and outs of SAFe. However, at this point, it’s good just to be aware of it, as you’ll likely come across it in your travels!

8. How to learn more about Agile product management

So, by now, you should have a better idea of what the Agile product management philosophy involves and how it can benefit you. But how would you go about actually implementing it? Unsurprisingly, the first step is to learn more about it.

Start with learning the basics of the Agile philosophy

Before diving full throttle into Agile product management, you’ll need to learn the basics. This means understanding the principles, roles, values, and practices of Agile as it relates to general software development. 

Once you’ve done this, you can start to apply it specifically to product management. There are many ways to learn the basics. You could explore some free online tutorials or use other resources, such as blogs, training courses, or Agile podcasts.

Dive deeper into the different Agile methodologies

Once you’ve grasped the tenets of Agile as a philosophy, start digging a bit deeper into the different types of methodology. Scrum, Kanban, and Lean are some practical frameworks we’ve already mentioned. Others include Extreme Programming (XP), Crystal, and Feature Driven Development (FDD).

While you won’t use all of these, it’s essential to learn the differences between them so you can choose one that best aligns with your product goals and team structure. Each is slightly different, so learn how they’re applied in different scenarios.

Read up on Agile product management best practice

Once you’ve learned the basics and understand the different types of Agile project management methodologies, it’s a good idea to start reading up on Agile best practice in software development.

For instance, you might want to research how and why to keep your backlog organized and up to date. Or maybe you’ll learn how to effectively run sprints and retrospective meetings (which is where you evaluate what you’ve learned and how to apply this to future sprints). Once you start digging, you’ll find there’s plenty to uncover.

Consider gaining an Agile certification

Those looking to become Agile product managers can demonstrate their skills by getting a certification. There are online and offline certifications available, both for general Agile software development and those specifically for product management.

A certification will help you demonstrate to employers that you have the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful in an Agile environment. A good course will help you learn skills such as how to manage timelines and budgets, and how to execute a successful sprint. Furthermore, a course will ground you in the tools you need (like those outlined in section 4) to create a sample product roadmap or user stories for your portfolio.

9. Wrap-up and further reading

So there we have it! Your whistle-stop tour through Agile product management! As we’ve learned in this post, Agile is an iterative approach to product development that involves short, time-boxed bursts of work, known as sprints. It emphasizes collaboration, communication, and continuous improvement.

Agile can be a powerful method for delivering higher-quality products in shorter timeframes. We’ve learned that it’s far from a one-person job. It requires a team of people with different skills and responsibilities to collaborate, review and evaluate their progress, to constantly improve. 

But at its core, it’s the product manager who must pull together the varying needs of customers, the business, and the development teams. This makes Agile an essential product management skill to learn.

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