Product Management in a Star Wars Universe

Editor’s note: the following was written by a guest blogger. If you would like to contribute to the blog, please contact [email protected]

After spending a decade in digital product development, I have learnt there is no right way to do Agile product development. Each enterprise is unique and needs to build their own balance with the Force (Star Wars reference).

The roles and titles are often confusing : Product Manager vs Product Owner just like Jedi vs Sith or Jedi Master vs Knight etc….

So here is everything I know about the Force a.k.a Agile Product Development that I have gathered over the years and this knowledge is kept in the Jedi temple.

If you have read this far, you should probably see the 9 movies in the order they were released since 1978.

In a galaxy far far away. In the world of digital product management…

Director Product Management (Grand Master)

star wars GIF

A Director of Digital Product Management is responsible for business’s product planning and execution all through the lifecycle of the business. He/ She is closely aligned to the company’s overall strategy and goals that are unequivocally supported by the product; in this case digital products which drive either business such as sales, providing information like member portal or apps in the healthcare space.

The classic example in the Star Wars universe is Master Yoda who has a deep connection with the force similar to a Director of Products who needs to have a connection with the organization strategy and plan how to deliver value for members or customers through their products.

Digital Product Manager (Jedi Master)

star wars GIF

The Digital Product Manager is responsible for defining and prioritizing the program backlog. This backlog drives the agile program’s value delivery via a series of releases. Very often the terms Product Owner and Product Manager are used interchangeably in the marketplace.

I will highlight the key differences with the role of Product Owner. (Jedi Master vs Jedi Knight)

The role of a Product Manager is not easy as many would think. You are responsible for interfacing with both internal and external customers for your product. That’s why this picture of Obi Wan Kenobi has battle wounds!

Managing expectation across the enterprise is challenging given there is only so much you can get out in a particular release. Choosing the most important features in each release and justifying / prioritizing them and showing value (using analytics) makes role so interesting!

Digital Product Operating Committee : The Jedi Counsel

revenge of the sith episode 3 GIF by Star Wars

The Digital Product Operating Committee  creates, defines, refines, manages, and prioritizes features (program-level ) and solution capabilities (portfolio-level). The Digital Product Operating Committee (at both the program and portfolio levels) provides an organizational and process framework to manage the backlog and align to organization goals and vision. 

Executive Leaders from Technology (CTO, CIO), Strategy, Business, Sales, Service and Product typically make up the Digital Operating Committee

 The benefits of a Digital Product Operating Committee are: 

  • Better link of strategic themes to execution, in current and future quarters
  • Plan product roadmaps looking 1 year or 2 year ahead
  • Re-accessing priorities (example when COVID-19 hit, many companies changed their priorities and investments)

Product roadmap planning event is essential for building an achievable plan across a large program or portfolio. The absence of a well-communicated plan can lead to teams acting in only their best interest rather than that of the overall product. Creating a roadmap requires true discipline. Good planning combined with these adjustments will enable the team to succeed. This is not a one time event but ongoing cadence either monthly or quarterly.

Priorities can change and the pandemic today has given us a lesson “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. So many companies had to probably change or accelerate or decelerate their digital investments in the last 7 months. Having a Jedi Counsel like Digital Steering Committee helps steer the enterprise in the right direction.

You might also be interested in: What 2020 Taught The Product World

Going back to Jedi Master a.k.a Product Manager

The Product Manager owns and manages the program backlog (i.e., defines and prioritizes program features). Product Managers work closely with the portfolio leadership team to help define the product vision and roadmap. They also work closely with the Release Train Engineer (RTE)/ SM and program teams (e.g., system/application owners, program architects) to define/prioritize program backlog (features).

They work with Product Owners and teams to plan and optimize feature delivery to the customers in a series of releases. 

Finally our Product Owner (Jedi Knight)

A member of the agile team, the Product Owner owns, maintains, and prioritizes the product backlog. The Product Owner shares the product vision and works closely with the Scrum Master to ensure the team delivers value to the business.

anakin GIF

The  Product Owner is responsible for documenting and communicating the program vision and roadmap. They are responsible for creating and managing the product/team backlog and collaborating with the rest of the agile team. They ensure that the agile team delivers value to the business.

Working as a Product Owner is probably the most enjoyable parts of product management. How many times can you get some really smart engineers to bend to your will (without having to use and Jedi mind tricks)? Product owners truly are the backbones of the great product we build.

Some Product Owners make great Product Managers similar to how great Marketer’s are those that have Sales experience. Some PO’s really love the technical interactions with engineering and continue to grow in the Product Owner track just like some Sales executives just love to do Sales and marketing really isn’t their thing!

Product Manager vs. Product Owner (Jedi Master vs Jedi Knight)

Some companies may just have a Product Owner for product development and it may work really well for them where products are broken down by feature owners. These roles are quite tactical in nature.

revenge of the sith episode 3 GIF by Star Wars

While in some companies, specially startups, you need someone to play both strategic and tactical roles and these roles receive the title of Product Managers.

And then you have companies where there is clear distinction between a Product Manager (PM) and Product Owner (PO), where the PM is solely responsible for driving the Product Strategy and interfacing with the business. I usually call them (PM) the narrative owners and they in-turn work with their tactical counterparts : Product Owners to build those narrative and features with IT.

This is a yin-yang relation that is needed in larger organizations where one focusses on Strategy (PM) and the other (PO) focuses on implementation / tactical workstream working closely with IT.

Finally, should you setup an organization with both the roles or just one? There is no right or wrong way to do this and each organization is different and their product management path will be different including how these roles roll up in the broader organization : Technology Org or Business / Product Org.

But if you ask me, I am with Darth Bane on this one :

Two there should be. No more, no less. One to embody power, the other to crave it.

―Darth Bane

About the Author

Niren Kochhar

Niren Kochhar is the Director of Digital Product Management at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ, which provides healthcare coverage for over 3.5 million members. At Horizon, Niren leads the digital transformation for the enterprise and is responsible for planning and executing Horizon’s digital strategy.

Niren has over a decade of experience in building and launching digital products for the healthcare industry spanning across members, payers and providers solutions.He is constantly looking at innovative ways to drive digital engagement, finding new ways to deliver digital care with a focus on enhancing member experience.

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