What is the role of a product manager in SAFe®?
The Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®) is used to synchronize planning and delivery of software across a large number of agile teams. SAFe provides a set of guidelines for aligning strategy and execution at each level of the organization. The framework applies lean and agile principles to help enterprises deliver complex solutions that satisfy customer and business needs in the shortest sustainable lead time.
Product management plays a crucial role in SAFe — after all, this team is responsible for setting product strategy, understanding what customers want, and prioritizing features. This role ensures that the organization delights customers and delivers economic value to the business.
Product management has content authority for the program backlog. They are responsible for identifying customer needs, prioritizing features, guiding the work through the program kanban and developing the program vision and roadmap.
This definition is consistent with the core responsibilities of most product managers. But as you will learn in this guide, SAFe introduces specific guidelines and workflows that product managers must operate within. Understanding where product management fits in the overall framework, what your responsibilities are, and who you will be working with is critical to your success in a SAFe environment. (If you are new to SAFe, you might find it helpful to read our guide on the Scaled Agile Framework to become familiar with the major concepts and terms.)
Where does product management fit in SAFe®?
A full SAFe® configuration includes four levels. Each level defines specific roles, activities, workflows, and deliverables so organizations can plan and execute in a cross-functional, coordinated way.
Here is an overview of what happens at each level of the framework:
Organizations set business strategy at the portfolio level. This includes defining a portfolio vision, setting strategic themes, allocating budgets, and establishing a portfolio backlog.
This is an optional level for organizations building large and complex solutions. It establishes value streams for developing new products, systems, or services capabilities that require multiple Agile Release Trains (ARTs).
The program level aligns business strategy with product development, organizing agile teams into an ART to coordinate the delivery of value in program increments (PI).
Success depends on the ability of agile teams to develop a cadence and release on demand. Teams use agile methodologies, such as scrum and kanban, to deliver working software iteratively and incrementally.
Product management fits within the program level. Ultimately, a product manager is responsible for ensuring an ART delivers solutions that meet customer, market, and business demands. Product managers use a program kanban system to manage the flow of features from idea to analysis, build, and release. They manage the program backlog, prioritizing and sizing features to fit in a PI. Features are then broken down into stories and and implemented by agile teams within an iteration. New functionality is continuously integrated and deployed so it can be released when the business is ready.
What are the key responsibilities of product managers?
Product managers have a number of important responsibilities. These can be grouped into the following areas:
Vision and roadmap
Product management is responsible for defining a vision that reflects customer and business needs. The vision should align with the strategic themes of the organization and include a long-term direction for the overall solution as well as a short-term vision for each ART. Product managers create program and release roadmaps based on delivery milestones.
Understanding customer and business needs
Product managers represent the customer for the ART. You perform continuous exploration to understand what customers need and want, using these insights to inform the vision and roadmap. Product managers also work with business stakeholders to maintain alignment as priorities and scope change.
Product management has content authority for the program backlog. Features are defined in a program kanban, including a benefit hypothesis and acceptance criteria, and analyze the economic impact using “Weighted Shortest Job First” (WSJF). Features approved by product management are moved to the program backlog and prioritized for implementation.
Program increment planning
During PI planning, product management presents the vision, roadmap, and highest priority features of the program backlog. Agile teams review what can be achieved based on capacity, dependencies, and technical knowledge. The planning team works together to define the overall objectives for the PI. Based on the outputs of PI planning, product management updates the roadmap and adjusts the forecast for the next two PIs.
A system demo takes place at the end of every iteration within the PI. Product managers and product owners are responsible for running the demo. This is an opportunity to gather feedback from primary stakeholders and review progress against the PI objectives. Product management validates features against the acceptance criteria and approves them for release.
What roles do product managers work with?
SAFe® defines a number of distinct roles at each level of the framework. The table below describes the various roles product managers interact with and how collaboration can lead to deliver successful software solutions.
Business owners are accountable for the overall return on investment, governance, and fitness for use for a solution developed by an agile release train (ART). Product managers work with business owners to ensure PIs deliver the right business outcomes.
Customers are the internal or external buyers of a solution. Product managers are responsible for engaging customers to continuously improve products and services and ensure a successful business outcome.
Epic owners work with stakeholders and subject matter experts to define business and enabler epics, make a business case for implementing them, and set priorities. Once approved, product managers work with epic owners to break down the epic into features and prioritize them in the program backlog.
Each agile team has a dedicated product owner. The product owner is responsible for the team backlog, defining, and accepting users stories. The product owner answers the team’s questions during development, serving as a proxy for the customer. The product owner works closely with product management to plan and manage program increments (PI).
Release train engineers
Release train engineers (RTE) are the Chief Scrum Masters for the entire release train. The RTE is responsible for the flow of value through the program-level kanban, PI planning and more. Product managers work with release train engineers to provide guidance throughout the planning and execution of each PI.
Solution managers are necessary when building large-scale solutions that require multiple ARTs. The solution manager has content authority for the solution backlog and works with the solution train engineer and solution architect to deliver capabilities. Solutions managers collaborate closely with product managers to breakdown capabilities into features for individual ARTS to implement.
System architects/engineers is responsible for providing technical enablement for an ART. This role creates an architectural vision for an ART and aligns teams around a shared technical direction. Product managers work with System architect/engineering to identify technical requirements to support the solution and allocate capacity for enablement work.
Ultimately, SAFe is about giving large enterprises a framework to build better software — by responding quickly to changing market conditions, customer needs, and emerging technologies. Product managers have an essential role in the framework, guiding the team through what is planned and ensuring that the end result delights customers and drives the business forward.
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