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Product Management & Agile – They Are Not the Same Thing

May 10, 2022   By Kent McDonald

Multiple leaders involved with digital transformations have asked us “what’s the difference between agile and product management? Aren’t they the same thing?” 

When you explore things from the perspective of software product development, agile and product management are not the same thing, but they have a strong overlap.

Teams often believe that if they adopt agile approaches they’ll be able to build the right software products faster and cheaper.

Properly applied agile approaches help you build products faster, but you need to apply product management properly to ensure you’re building (or not building) the right thing.

What are product management and agile?

In product development, product management is about building the right thing, and agile (software development) is about building the thing right.

That probably doesn’t paint the full picture, so here’s a bit more on each.

What is product management?

Product management is helping your customers solve problems in a way that is beneficial for your organization.

Effective product management involves working with a stable cross-functional team to address four major risks:

  1. Identify problems that your customers find value in having solved.
  2. Solve those customer problems when it’s viable for your organization
  3. Create a solution that’s usable for your customers.
  4. Identify a solution that’s feasible for you to deliver, given the time, skills, and technology you have available.

The “right thing” is a product that offers a viable, usable, and feasible solution to a problem that your customer needs solved.

What is agile?

Agile is the ability to respond to an uncertain and turbulent environment by creating and responding to change.

When comparing and contrasting with product management, agile is usually shorthand for agile software development. According to the Agile Alliance, agile software development is “an umbrella term for a set of frameworks and practices based on the values and principles expressed in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development and the 12 Principles behind it.”

You build the thing right by collaboratively and iteratively developing a solution using good software development practices.

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Comparing product management and agile

As you can see, product management and agile are both critical aspects of product development. The two concepts are complementary activities that are both necessary to get a satisfactory outcome.

How are the two the same?

The fundamental similarities between product management and agile come from their approach to work.

Agile software development stressed the need for iteration and continuous learning during software development. You couldn’t figure out everything you needed to know without going through the act of building it.

Companies that adopted agile software development formed cross-functional teams to build software instead of pulling a temporary group of people together from a bunch of silos.

Product management works best when your cross-functional product team practices continuous customer discovery to learn more about the problem you’re trying to solve.

In fact, you could say agile approaches that have cross-functional collaboration and iterating to deal with uncertainty as core tenets heavily influenced current approaches to product management.

How are the two different?

The two concepts differ primarily in their focus on aspects of the product development lifecycle.

Agile software development focuses on optimizing the delivery process. It addresses how software development teams work together and the engineering practices they use to build software.

Most of the common agile frameworks assign responsibility for deciding what to build to a representative of the customer or “management” but they don’t specify how to make those decisions.

When there is information about identifying what to build, it’s usually in the guise of how to organize that information to make developers’ lives easier.

Product management places a much bigger focus on determining what to build, specifically the strategy and discovery aspects of product development. 

Most product management practices and techniques center on understanding customers and their needs and deciding which problems to solve for customers.

Current product management thinking also encourages product teams to be much more outcome-focused – measuring progress on what problems you solve.

Because agile software development approaches have little to say on what to build, many organizations using agile approaches without a strong product management influence focus more on output.

How do agile and product management relate to digital transformations?

As part of a digital transformation, your organization applies technology to provide your customers with more interaction with your business processes. 

You’re making it easier for customers to interact with your company to solve their problems.

A successful digital transformation starts with a solid understanding of your customer’s problem and how you might solve that problem with digital technologies. 

Product management guides your efforts to understand those customer problems through its use of continuous customer discovery. 

You improve your chances for success in a digital transformation when you combine continuous customer discovery with rapid, iterative development. That’s where agile software development comes into play.

When you use a combination of product management and agile, you address risks much earlier in the process compared to waterfall approaches where you built it and hoped people would come.

Agile approaches provide the practices and frameworks you can use to iteratively deliver new functionality to your customers, gain feedback, and learn more about the problem and your solution. 

When to adopt agile and product management

If you want to get the best results possible from your digital transformation, adopt a combination of agile software development and product management. That way, you can directly test out what you learn from continuous discovery through iterative product delivery.

You can also make sure that you structure stable cross-functional teams to perform discovery and delivery and empower them to determine the best solutions for the most valuable customer problem.

Why does all this matter?

Many organizations have thought that if they adopted agile approaches, they could address all of their product development woes. More often than not, they found they were able to build higher-quality software faster, but that software did not result in the outcomes they were hoping for.

When you understand that agile and product management are two different, but complementary ideas, you’re much better positioned to build the right things in the right way.

Combining the power of continuous customer discovery and iterative product delivery allows you to truly understand your customers’ needs and solve them. 

That provides value to your customers and benefits your business.


Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent practices his craft with a variety of product teams and provides just-in-time resources for product people at KBP.media.  When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.

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