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Tag: Team

Why SME’s are important, but shouldn’t be the Product Manager

Along time ago in a land far away; well four years ago and sat in a very cold office in trafalgar square; Ross Ferguson , Alex Kean , Scot Colfer and I plus a few others sat discussing the DDaT capability framework for Product Management.

The discussions we had at the time focused on “how do we actually define the role? And what makes a good product manager?” And there have been plenty of blogs written on those questions over the years. It definitely feels like the role has matured and progressed over the last few years, and now is generally pretty well recognised.

However yesterday chatting to Si Wilson about SME’s and Product Managers, and why they were different roles, I realised this may be one area not touched on much, and actually a pretty key difference it’s important to understand.

In the private sector, the Product Manager is often “the voice of the business”, they are equally seen as the “voice of the customer” but when developing products to take to market and make a profit, it’s less about what the users need, and what the business can sell to them.

In the Public Sector, the role of the Product Manager is a bit different. The Product Manager is NOT the voice of the business, instead they are the voice of the vision. The Product Manager is responsible for ‘what could be’ they ensure the team are delivering quality and value, weighing up the evidence from everyone else in the team and making the decisions on where to focus next in order to meet the desired outcomes.

This slight change in focus is where the role of the Subject Matter Expert (SME) comes in. The Scrum Dictionary states the SME is the person with specialised knowledge; in my experience the SME provide’s the voice of the business; and what ‘is’ rather than what will be. They understand the in’s and out’s of an existing product, service or any sacred cows that need to be avoided (or understood) within an organisation. They usually work closely with the Business Analyst to map out business processes and User Researchers to understand staff experiences.

Back when we merry band of Head’s of Product were trying to understand the role, the decision to not have Product Managers ‘be the voice of the business’ was a very deliberate move as we felt it hampered the move to User Centred design, as it felt it was hard to step back and be agnostic about the solution if you’ve had years in the business and know every pain point and workaround going etc.

Some of the dangers of having a Product Manager who is also an SME are:

  • They feel they know everything already because of their experience, so feel that user research or testing is a waste of time.
  • They become a single point of failure for both knowledge and decision making, with too many people needing their attention at the same time
  • They can get lost in the weeds of details, which can lead to micromanaging or a lack of pace

That is not at all to say that Product Managers can’t ‘come from the business’ because obviously having some knowledge about the organisation and the service is helpful. But equally, having a clear delineation between the roles of the Product Manager and the SME is important; so if you do have someone covering both roles, it’s important to understand which hat is being worn when decisions are made; and for that individual to be able to draw a line between when they are acting as the PM and when they are the SME.

A person presenting at a whitewall to a team

As a Product person, a good SME is worth their weight in gold. good ones bring loads of speed and stretching thinking — and even packaging thinking. They can help identify pain points, and help user researchers and business analysts find the right people to talk to when asking questions about processes’ etc. They give the Product Manager room to manoeuvre, and make sure things are moving on. Equally the best SME’s can be pragmatic, they understand that what the business wants doesn’t always match what users want, and work with the team to find the best way forward.

Where the role of the SME hasn’t worked well, in my experience, it tends to be because the individual hasn’t been properly empowered to make decisions by their organisation or line manager; or don’t actually have the knowledge required, and are instead their to capture questions or decisions and feed them back to their team/manager. Another common issues is that the SME can’t be pragmatic or understand the difference between user needs and business needs; and won’t get involved in user research or understand its importance. Rather than helping the team move work forward, they slow things down; wanting every decision justified to their satisfaction; wanting to make decisions themselves rather than working with the Product Manager.

Rarely have I found SME”s that could be dedicated full time to one project, they tend to be Policy or Ops experts etc. and so there are a lot of demands on their time. I suspect this is one of the reasons the role of the SME and Product Manager if sometimes blended together. However, while they ‘can’ be filled by the same person, in my experience having those roles filled by separate people does work much better, and allow the team to deliver value quicker.

Scrum Master or Delivery Manager – what’s in a name?

Are the roles of Scrum Master and Delivery manager the same?

Continuing on my recent musings on the different roles within Agile multidisciplinary teams, today’s blog focuses on the role of the Delivery Manager, or the Scrum Master, and whether these roles are really the same thing.

This is a conversation that came up a few weeks ago at the #ProductPeople community meetup in Birmingham, and something that causes quite a bit of frustration from those people I’ve talked to in the Delivery Manager community.

The role of the Scrum Master is that of facilitator within the multidisciplinary team, it is a role particular to Scrum, and they are the ‘expert’ on how to make Scrum work, often described as a ‘Servant leader’ they help everyone in the team understand the theory and practices of Scrum as a way of working together.

Within digital government the role has been widened out to include other responsibilities, and often mixed with the role of the Delivery Manager. Emily Webber did a fantastic blog a few years ago on the role of the Delivery Manger, and as she put’s it, while the roles are often used interchangeably, they really shouldn’t be.

But why not? What makes them different?

As said above, the Scrum Master focuses on the ‘how’ of Scrum as a methodology. The are the expert in the room on how best to utilise Scrum to deliver. They are more akin to an agile coach, guiding the team, and often the person best versed on the most up to date practices and ways of working.

But for me, the Delivery Manager focuses more on the ‘What’ and ‘When’. While the Product Manager (or Owner) focuses on ‘Why’ the team are doing what they are doing, the problems they are trying to solve, the vision they are trying to deliver. The Delivery Manager is looking at what could block the team from being able to deliver; what the right make up of the team needs to be in terms of roles and capabilities, what governance processes does the team have to meet in order to stay on track to deliver, and when delivery will happen.

As the Digital Data and Technology capability framework says, at the most basic level the delivery manager is accountable for the delivery of products and services. They are very much a doer paired with the Product Managers visionary thinker. They make sure things actually happen. They hold the Product Manager and the team to account and keep them on track.

They are the heart of the team, responsible for maintaining the health and happiness of the team; they understand who from the team will be available and when, making sure people are able to work well together, identifying conflicts and ensuring the team stay motivated and happy in order to enable delivery.

When you look at the role as explained in the capability framework it looks very straight forward, build and motivate teams, manage risk s and issues, ensure delivery, ok great. But then you get to the bit that merges the scrum master tole and the delivery manager role, and this is where a lot of individuals I know within the team struggle, “coach team members and others, facilitate continuous improvement and apply the most appropriate agile and lean tools and techniques for their environment”.

This is actually quite a big task, to stay on top of the most appropriate agile and lean tools and techniques requires a lot of self learning; which is fantastic, but also requires quite a bit of time away form the team you are meant to be supporting.

Most Delivery Managers that I know (certainly within CQC, and others I have talked to across Government) are involved with (if not directly responsible for) the business cases for their Products and Services. Unblocking issues, ensuring funding requests, requesting resources, etc. this all takes up a lot of a Delivery Managers time. When you are also meant to be running the daily stand-ups, managing team retrospectives, monitoring team velocity and organising show and tells you can find your days are very full.

More and more delivery managers that I know are finding they just don’t have time for the ‘people centric’ part that is meant to be at the heart of their role, as Projects and Programmes utilise them more and more as project Managers who are also scrum masters, and so our Delivery managers feel pulled in two directions, and our teams suffer because of it.

When organisations so often find they are struggling to deliver, often at the heart of that is the issue that they have not properly recognised the role of the Delivery Manager. This is a fundamental issues, especially when organisations are new to agile ways of working. Embedding ‘how’ to be agile, takes up just as much time as understanding ‘what’ you can deliver and ‘when’.

Perhaps in mature agile organisations bringing those roles together makes more sense, but for now I think we need to go back to letting our Delivery Managers focus on making sure we can deliver, and our scrum masters helping us use the right techniques to be able to delivery well.