What is the role of a product manager in scrum?

Delivering lovable products is a true collaborative effort between many teams across an organization. Product and engineering are two of those teams that work closely together — with great help from other teams like UX to consider the customer experience. The product team prioritizes backlog items and the engineering team determines what work they can commit to and builds it. But how do these teams work together to move seamlessly from ideation to shippable product?

Many teams choose to use an agile software development methodology, which encourages an iterative approach to product planning and implementation so organizations can quickly respond to feedback and build products that customers love. Scrum is the most widely used agile methodology for managing software projects and product or application development. Scrum focuses on an adaptive product development strategy where a small cross-functional team collaborates and uses frequent planning meetings to iterate towards a common goal. They work within specified periods of time called sprints, which are typically one to four weeks.

Benefits of the scrum methodology

A key principle of scrum is its recognition that during a project, product managers and customers may change their minds about what they want and need. Unpredicted technical challenges cannot always be seen at the beginning of a development cycle. For this reason, scrum promotes a flexible approach to contend with unforeseen challenges.

Here are some of the key benefits of the scrum methodology's flexible approach:

  • The near-term roadmap can continually be adjusted to meet customer needs.

  • Rapid iteration allows product managers to learn and act on feedback quickly. You can revise backlog priority before the next sprint or release — without significant wasted effort.

  • There is a shippable product every sprint. This means you can deliver value to users each release.

Ultimately, it is best to choose scrum if you need to help your teams move quickly and deliver what customers want. It is also important to make sure the product vision is set and goals are clear.

Scrum roles

While the members of the cross-functional scrum team — such as testers, designers, and UX specialists collaborate to achieve their goals, certain team members will take on the following defined roles:

Scrum master

The coach that helps keep the team accountable to their commitments to the business and also remove any roadblocks that might impede the team's productivity.

Development team

The team that drives the plan for each sprint and completes the work. They forecast and commit to how much work they can complete in each sprint using their previous velocity and capacity as a guide.

Product owner

The owner of the product vision. They are focused on understanding business, customer, and market requirements — then prioritizing the work to be done by the development team.

Stakeholders

People external to the scrum team with a specific interest in and knowledge of the product that is used for discovery and feedback.

It is important to understand that these are roles rather than job titles. This can create confusion about the differences between a product manager and product owner if only a product manager exists. In this case, the product manager also acts as the product owner. However, in some organizations, there might be both product managers and product owners. In this scenario, the product owner naturally should focus on internal responsibilities — like backlog maintenance per the standard scrum methodology. And the product manager should focus on external responsibilities — like market and customer research and roadmap presentations.

Scrum concepts

The scrum methodology utilizes many unique concepts that provide structure in the development process. To be successful in a scrum environment, it is important for product managers to understand each of these concepts and how to interact with them.

If you are new to this methodology, the table below provides definitions for key scrum concepts:

Epic

Epics are an agile element for large efforts of work that can be broken down into smaller user stories. An epic typically takes more than one sprint to complete.

Estimate

Estimates are quantified evaluations of the effort necessary to carry out a given development task. This is most often expressed in units of time or story points.

Product backlog

A product backlog is a scrum artifact, managed by the product manager. It is a list of all the work you want to implement but have not yet prioritized for release.

Product increment

A product increment is another scrum artifact. It is the sum of all the product backlog items completed during a sprint. Increments must meet the development team's definition of done and be a useable product.

Sprint backlog

A sprint backlog is another scrum artifact, managed by the engineering team. It is a list of user stories that need to be completed during an iteration.

Sprint

A sprint is the actual time period when the scrum team works together to finish an increment. This typically ranges from one to four weeks.

Theme

Themes are an organizational tool that allows you to group or label backlog items, epics, and initiatives to understand what work contributes to specific organizational goals.

Timebox

A timebox is a fixed, maximum unit of time for an activity. Scrum masters use timeboxes to keep ceremonies efficient and facilitate smooth-flowing collaboration.

User story

User stories are the smallest units of work in the scrum framework. They are an end goal expressed from the user's perspective. User stories make up the sprint backlog.

Velocity

Velocity is the amount of work a team can accomplish during a period of time. Velocity is commonly used in agile development to calculate how much work a team can complete during a sprint.

Scrum ceremonies

Another fundamental principle of scrum is that teams complete work in a time-bound cycle called a sprint cycle. As the product manager, it is important for you to understand how the engineering team is tackling work in each sprint to make sure your backlogs are properly prioritized. The table below outlines the regular ceremony meetings the development team has in a sprint cycle:

Sprint planning

In this meeting, the engineering team commits to a set of deliverables for the sprint and identifies the tasks that must be completed in order to deliver the work on time. The product manager prepares the release backlog ahead of this planning meeting so the team can choose work items from it.

Daily scrum/standup

The daily scrum or standup is intended to be a short and focused meeting. Engineering team members share what work has been completed, what work is next, and any questions or obstacles that might have come up since the previous meeting. The product manager is not required to attend but can choose to join as an observer.

Sprint review

This is the meeting where the engineering team presents the stories completed within the sprint to relevant stakeholders. They also call out any stories they were unable to complete in the sprint. The product manager gathers feedback during this review meeting to rework the product backlog based on the current sprint — or to use for future iterations of the completed stories.

Sprint retrospective

The retrospective is designed to be the scrum team's opportunity to review the previous sprint and share any strategic changes the team feels could make future sprints more efficient. As a key member of the scrum team, the product manager should join to help inspect completed stories and drive changes to adapt.

Scrum tools

As you have learned in this guide, the scrum framework requires product managers to consistently communicate with the scrum master, the development team, and other scrum team members to be successful. Once you have defined strategy and organized work into releases, you share this with the engineering team and they manage work implementation across sprints. You then need to keep track of progress as work is completed.

There are a few tools you can use to track progress. Using purpose-built product management software helps keep everything connected — from strategy to work management to reporting. And you are often able to move faster when product data is centrally organized and up to date. Below are a few examples of views and roadmaps you can create using product management software:

Scrum board

A scrum board is a visual representation of work to be done by the development team. This type of board is useful for organizing features into backlogs or upcoming releases. It can be used by the development team to organize and assign specific features to team members. And you can use a scrum board to track each feature through its lifecycle.

Release burndown chart

A release burndown chart shows the amount of work completed per day against the amount of work remaining for a release. This chart is commonly used by product managers to monitor real-time progress, remaining work, and any changes. The engineering team will often use a sprint burndown to make sure their iterations are on track.

Agile roadmap

An agile roadmap provides a view of what the team is building and when you expect to deliver it. It helps you look at a short-term plan for achieving your product goals, with the flexibility to adjust that plan according to customer value. The example below provides a great view of current releases with their features — plus their relationship to strategic goals and initiatives.

Regardless of the methodology you use, your core responsibilities as a product manager are unchanged. Set the product strategy, plan the roadmap, and define the releases. It is your job to make sure everyone on your team understands who owns what. Using the scrum methodology can bring added transparency and collective ownership throughout the development cycle. And quick iterations can keep the development team motivated with a defined goal in sight.

Before you move product development forward with scrum, make time to understand your role in the process and the tools to use for success. Knowing these principles will set you up to lead an exceptional agile scrum team.


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