On Product Manager in the Team

(by Bas Vodde and Craig Larman)

On Product Manager in the Team

This post is the second in a series related to product management and product teams. Like the previous post, this one is partly influenced by Marty Cagan’s article on “Product Teams” vs “Feature Teams”. Marty seems to see the role of Product Manager different than we do, but the difference is probably more about the team than about the Product Manager. That said, this post is especially influenced by the frequent recurring question, “Should a Product Manager be on the Team?”

Being on the Team in LeSS

First, let us clarify that a little bit by exploring what “part of the Team” means in LeSS.

The Team has a shared responsibility for the result of a Sprint. A shared responsibility means that, even though people on the team probably have a primary specialization and a preferred focus area (which may not be the same, because of learning), all of the members of the team are responsible for all the work that the team does. In practice, this results in vague boundaries between the individual team members primary specialization, and in some teams not even a meaningful distinction.

A Team in LeSS (and Scrum) is also self-managing. What’s the implication of that on a team taking a shared responsibility? Key point: the team will need to have (1) a clear shared goal, (2) at the same time. We want to stress the temporal aspect here as it is rarely discussed but really important! When a new self-managing team is formed in which previously the team members were used to traditional siloed single-function roles, then if they continue that pattern, the team will struggle with finding ways to parallelize their work. The first and easiest questions is, how can we test before the implementation is done? Then, the same question needs to be answered related to the other roles that used to work in a sequential lifecycle with handoff, “How can we do the UI design at the same time as the implementation?”, “How can we do the analysis at the same time as the implementation”.

The fundamental problem that self-managing teams with shared responsibility have to solve is: How can we together in parallel work on activities that were previously considered sequential?

What would it mean if the Product Manager were part of the team?

When a Product Manager is part of the team, it will mean that the Product Management responsibilities are a shared responsibility within the team. However, one problem to solve here is that a significant amount of Product Management activities usually do not – or even can’t – happen at the same time as the activities of the rest of the Team for the selected work in the Sprint. This is mostly because of the delayed feedback of some of these activities. For example, if a Product Manager is out observing users or talking with them, then this activity is usually not at the same time and for the same goal as what the team is working on right now.

Just to be clear, we are not saying that it’s good that Product Managers don’t work on the same goals at the same time as the Team, we are simply observing that this is often so, and that it’s hard to change that in the context of the customers they work with and the organization they work in.

Considering this, we have seen two common alternatives of Product Management working with the team:

Product Manager as part of the team

This means the whole team takes on Product Management responsibilities (not just the person with Product Management preference). The team together discusses how to get closer to customers, understand them better, emphasize better, and discover potential new outcomes to achieve or new features to create.

It is likely to happen that the Product Management activities do not directly relate directly to the other work selected in the Sprint. In that case, the team needs to cope with the temporal differences, the work selected in the Sprint and the Product Management responsibilities related to understanding the customer, without creating separate roles within the team. For example, the entire team gets together at the beginning of the Sprint (Sprint Planning 2) to understand the Product Management activities and decides how they together are going to work on these.

Note that there is a similarity and overlap between Product Management activities and Product Backlog Refinement. Product Backlog Refinement is similar look-ahead work. A difference is that it is often possible to do Product Backlog Refinement work with the entire team together while it might not be feasible to always send the entire team to the customer (though maybe that’s not a bad idea…)

Product Manager who works with a team

Although in LeSS we love the Product Manager – and hence Product Management responsibility – to be part of the team, in practice we often see a Product Manager working with teams. In this case, the Product Manager focuses on Product Management activities (such as competitor and market analysis, and much more) and helps the teams to understand the market, customer, and problems to solve. Sometimes a Product Manager might work very close with one or several teams for a long time when the team works with customers or features that they know most about. However, in that case the Product Management responsibilities are not (yet) fully shared within the team.

In some cases, this is a first step to eventually moving the Product Management responsibilities into the team. In other cases, that won’t happen because (1) the focus of the team changes whereas the focus of the Product Management might not (e.g. in case the Product Manager is focused on a particular customer or customer segment), or (2) the Product Manager’s responsibility is intrinsically hard to share in the team, which might be the case when there’s lots of travel and customer relationships that needs to be maintained.


So, should the Product Manager be a part of the team? Which also means, should Product Management be a shared responsibility in the team? If you can do that, great! Alternatively, Product Managers can work with the team to help them understand the customers better.

On the Product Owner Role

Final note: We are talking about Product Management here and not the role of Product Owner. In LeSS, the Product Owner focuses on overall Product vision, prioritization, and investment decisions. In product companies, the Product Owner tends to be one senior person from a Product Management group, but not all Product Managers will be Product Owners.

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