Scrum Guide 2020: what’s in it for Product Management?

With less than two months to go, 2020 brings us an updated version of the Scrum Guide. Merits or demerits aside, Scrum is arguably a popular framework. It’s widely used as is or adapted by the adopting teams (to the dismay of the most purists). Because many product managers learn their ropes through delivery-focused on-the-job experience, Scrum ends up being their first encounter with anything resembling product management.

The 2020 Scrum Guide is a step forward in that regard for me. In the 2017 text, most of the responsibilities of a product manager were left to imagination in the role of Product Owner (PO). It’s not surprising so many approach the PO as “someone who manages the backlog” and the Product Manager as “someone else”. Although the 2020 Scrum Guide remains away from defining how a PO “does product management”, other key changes make it clear that a PO can’t really fulfil their responsibilities 100% by only managing the backlog and feeding it to the team.

Even if one argues that this was merely a change to the Scrum Guide reflecting what was already common practice, it’s still an important change. With so many product managers starting off from an angle of Scrum POs, a Scrum Guide that sets them on the right track is more than welcome.

The Scrum Guide’s revision history highlights the changes in the 2020 edition in 7 points:

  1. even less prescriptive;
  2. one Team, focused on one Product;
  3. introduction of the Product Goal;
  4. a home for Sprint Goal, Definition of Done, and Product Goal;
  5. self-managing over self-organising;
  6. three sprint planning topics;
  7. overall simplification of language for a wider audience.

Before we look into them with a Product-heavy focus, let’s see how the definition of the Product Owner role changed from 2017 to 2020. (You can find the 2017 definition of Product Owner in my previous article on the challenges of the Product Owner role when using Scrum in an agency setting.)

The Product Owner in Scrum Guide 2020

The Product Owner is responsible accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Scrum Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

While remaining non-prescriptive on how they do their job, the Scrum Guide makes the PO accountable for value for the whole Scrum Team. Looks subtle, but it’s not so: remember that the now extinct Development Team did not include Product Owner!

The Product Owner is the sole person responsible also accountable for managing the Product Backlog effective Product Backlog management, which includes:
(…)

For me the key word here is “also”. It does help put the emphasis on value, with backlog management being a means to that end (rather that a responsibility on its own right).

Effective Product Backlog Management

Other than slight rewordings, here are the main changes to the list of what effective Product Backlog management includes.

Developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal;

As we’ll see in more detail, the Product Goal is the long-term objective for the Scrum Team. This adds to the PO’s duties a notably absent clarity on empowerment and long-term thinking.

Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;

Ensuring that the Product Backlog is transparent, visible, and clear to all understood, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,

Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

The removed bits here do a great job at removing the all-too-popular undertone that the Product Owner is there to tell the team what to do.

The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee needs of many stakeholders in the Product Backlog. Those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority the Product Backlog must address the Product Owner can do so by trying to convince the Product Owner.

As for this final bit, the changes emphasise that the Product Owner…

  1. …is there to unravel needs, not to jump on cue from a committee. (We can say the same about the whole Scrum Team, in fact.)
  2. …is accountable, not just for the order of the Product Backlog, but for what is and isn’t in it.
Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

With that context set, let’s dive deeper into some of the…

Major changes in the Scrum Guide

Even Less Prescriptive

As we’ve seen, the 2020 Scrum Guide still doesn’t prescribe how a PO does their job. It “may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals”. This shows that good product management practices are neither incompatible with Scrum or something alien to Scrum. The fact that you will still have to define how to do Product is part of Scrum.

One Team, Focused on One Product

There’s no “Development Team” within the Scrum Team anymore. This means there’s no longer a “team within the team” to which the Product Owner is an outsider. Furthermore, because the PO is now “accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Scrum Team”, something is clearer than before: the Product Owner is accountable for the value of their own work.

There’s also an added emphasis on cross-functionality, in that the Developer role doesn’t mean “programmers”. Developers are anyone committed to any aspect of the product: programmers, QAs, product designers, analysts, what have you.

Product Goal

Instead of paraphrasing the definition, I’ll let the Scrum Guide do most of the talking here.

The Product Goal describes a future state of the product which can serve as a target for the Scrum Team to plan against. The Product Goal is in the Product Backlog. The rest of the Product Backlog emerges to define “what” will fulfill the Product Goal.

A product is a vehicle to deliver value. It has a clear boundary, known stakeholders, well-defined users or customers. A product could be a service, a physical product, or something more abstract.

The Product Goal is the long-term objective for the Scrum Team. They must fulfill (or abandon) one objective before taking on the next.

First of all, the Product Goal gives the Scrum Team something that was missing: a purpose. A “Why?”. We can think of the Product Goal as embodying in the Scrum framework the product vision (and/or the team’s mission towards it).

This is the change I’d most like to see organisations claiming to follow Scrum take seriously. I’d expect this to also have an impact on how organisations structure their Scrum teams.

With this addition, the 2020 Scrum Guide also redefines the Product Backlog as a by-product of the team’s commitment to the Product Goal. This is particularly powerful when seen together with other explicit changes. Together they are the pillars of a…

Self-managing Scrum Team

…instead of a self-organising Development Team.

  1. The Product Owner’s responsibilities now include expressing the Product Goal. Furthermore, because they’re part of the “self-managing Scrum Team”, they’re now accountable for the value of their own work too. This shows a clear red card to real-life scenarios where the PO is a disenfranchised Jira Jockey.
  2. The Sprint Planning used to be about “What” and “How”. Now it starts with the “Why”, which is not something brought by the PO like a wiseman’s gift. The whole Scrum Team discusses how the items at the top of the Backlog map to the Product Goal.
  3. The Increment is no longer the state of the product at the end of the Sprint. A new Increment emerges each time a Product Backlog Item meets the Definition of Done. The team can decide to deliver it prior to the end of the Sprint. The Product Owner is no longer the guardian of such decision, nor is the Sprint Review the moment when it happens.

One by one, the three points above show that none of Melissa Perri’s “Bad Product Managers Archetypes”:

  • the Mini-CEO;
  • the Waiter;
  • the Former Project Manager;

have room in a great Scrum PO. The 2020 Scrum Guide can get Scrum Teams and POs out of the build trap.

In short, with the Product Goal and the shift towards self-managing, the Scrum Team now has:

  • a clear mission and
  • the autonomy (hence responsibility) to pursue it.

Verdict: Scrum Guide 2020 and “Product Owner vs Product Manager”

If you ask me, the 2020 Scrum Guide settles the old question of “Product Owner vs Product Manager”. (At least in what concerns Scrum. SAFe does separate Product Management from the Product Owner role, but let’s keep SAFe off the discussion.)

With the 2020 changes in the Scrum guide, it becomes evident that not only:

Product Owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the job.

Melissa Perri, “Product Manager vs Product Owner”

but also that, in a Scrum team, PO and PM are one and the same. That was always the case, the Scrum Guide just didn’t do a great job saying it — until now.

Never say never?

“Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.” There is room for something similar to that “PO + PM” setup as a transition. When onboarding and developing first time product managers, a more experienced product manager can:

  • take an up-and-coming product manager “under their wing”, and
  • progressively delegate responsibilities while still remaining accountable for the final outcome.

The Product Owner may do the above work, or may delegate the responsibility to others. Regardless, the Product Owner remains accountable.

Even in that case, if we’re to map this to the letter of the Scrum Guide, it doesn’t look like either:

  • “2 POs”; or
  • “PM (senior, strategy) + PO (junior, execution)”;

is the right mapping. If anything:

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

As they develop, the junior product manager may become the Product Owner for one Scrum Team… if and only if they’re able to be “accountable for maximizing the value of the product” from end to end.


This post represents my individual professional opinion on this subject, not that of any company I work (or have worked) at/for on this subject area.