There are two fundamental high-level tasks each product team has to deal with: discover the product to be built, and deliver that product to market. So, when talking about delivery lead vs product manager in Agile teams, the product manager's (PM) main job is to shape the product, and the delivery lead's (also known as delivery manager) primary activity is to deliver the product (though each role takes part in both processes).
Both discovery and delivery run in parallel, that’s why we should define the two roles as a part of continuous discovery and delivery.
Seems more than clear, but after years of experience providing UI/UX design services as a part of numerous product teams, we can state that most companies still have a process that is essentially Waterfall at its core (even if they call it Agile), where discovery is only the first step of product development. Such an approach causes many products to fail and here is why.
What’s wrong with the way most companies organize their product development process?
In most organizations, no matter what their size is, the product development process looks something like this:
- The company gets ideas from stakeholders, business owners, or customers.
- Then ideas are prioritized into a roadmap. But in order to prioritize, they first need some kind of a business case for each item to learn how much value it will make and how much money or time it will cost. Based on this information they build the roadmap.
- A product manager will then choose the top priority issue and speak with the stakeholders to develop the concept and create a list of "requirements" (user stories). User stories are needed to convey to the designers and engineers what has to be produced.
- Once the company has defined requirements it asks the design team to visualize the idea with UI/UX design (if the company decides to onboard a design team at all).
- Next, engineers get the requirements and design specifications to implement the idea (that’s where Agile finally comes into play, as engineers usually divide the work into sprints to develop and test the idea in parallel).
- If the QA testing isn’t included in those sprints, the QA team will do additional testing to ensure the new concept functions as intended.
- Finally, when QAs approve the implemented idea, it is deployed and introduced to real customers.
Such a process doesn’t look much like Agile and serves as a reason for many problems:
- It takes very long for the idea to reach the actual customers.
- Roadmaps risk to turn into a list of features that different departments want you to implement (and most probably at least half of those ideas aren’t going to work as you expect).
- Product manager turns into a project manager who only gathers requirements and passes them to developers.
- The company can’t get the full value of UX design, as designers are introduced into the process too late (if introduced at all).
- The same problem is with developers. Though they can make a great contribution to product innovation, in many companies engineers are asked only to write the code and are brought into the product development process very late.
- Customer validation happens far too late. As a result, businesses invest time and money in activities that don't actually benefit them.
What is the way out of this situation? Both product discovery and product delivery should run in parallel and continually. In strong product teams product managers, designers, delivery leads (if any), and developers work closely together to build the high-quality product that users love.
Now let’s define product manager and delivery lead roles in terms of ongoing product discovery and delivery.
How product manager and delivery lead fit into continuous discovery and delivery
To begin with, let’s see what these two processes are supposed to look like.
Product discovery aims to distinguish between good and bad ideas and, as a result, let the team get a validated product backlog. The close cooperation between product management, user experience design, and engineering teams is a key component of discovery. Before building the solution, these specialists work together and conduct experiments to eliminate risks by finding answers to the following questions:
- Will people be willing to use this solution and pay for it?
- Is it possible to build the solution/feature from a technical point of view?
- Will software/feature be easy enough for people to use?
- Will stakeholders back the concept?
When the team has evidence that the idea they are going to implement is valuable enough from the customer’s standpoint and technically feasible, it’s time to deliver it.
The purpose of product delivery is to build and release high-quality technological solutions that people will buy and business will benefit from. Continuous delivery enables teams to produce products/features in short cycles, ensuring that they can be reliably released with greater speed and frequency.
Continuous discovery and delivery mean that the team is doing all the above-mentioned activities weekly, as a part of their regular duties. Such processes cover everything, from determining if enough consumers want this solution to developing impactful products that benefit both clients and the business. This way, spending time on solid research impacts the development positively, and that’s how companies should work.
Continuous discovery and delivery work especially well for product-led companies, as they tend to focus only on those products/features that bring more value to the end-user.
We’ve best experienced this connection between discovery and delivery when working as remote designers on Haven Diagnostics, the software that allows evaluating the risks of disease spread in offices. They wanted to learn who their users are before developing the product. Our designer was constantly communicating with the CEO (who performed the role of a PM as well) and an engineer discussing their vision, expectations, and brainstorming design ideas to form the final product. Best concepts were then tested with users.
During the brainstorming, together we came up with ideas on how to improve the calculations' accuracy and better adjust the results to individual clients’ needs. Although this procedure didn't directly affect the design, it influenced the back-end and raised the product's quality.
Here’s the quote by Marty Cagan, a Silicon Valley-based product executive, that best summarizes the essence of two processes:
“The discovery track is continuously generating product backlog items, and the delivery track is continuously building, testing and deploying these items.”
There are numerous tasks within the two continuous processes that the team has to perform day-to-day. The product manager and delivery lead should assist the team and ensure they’re building the right thing for customers and the business.
The tasks the team has to complete during the product development process. Image credit: presentation “Continuous discovery in Product-led companies” by Pendo and GLIDR
Let’s take a closer look at what PMs and delivery managers do day-to-day as a part of the continuous discovery and delivery.
Product manager role and responsibilities
We’ll start with a role of a product manager as the one most engaged in the discovery part.
A good product manager is someone most aligned with defining the scope, the product vision, the target audience, and the problems a product should solve. These people serve as a voice of customers to the whole organization. So, in traditional project management, PMs’ job is to ensure the team of developers has a product worth building.
Here is the list of their main responsibilities:
- Collect user feedback (preferably from a direct source such as self-serve comments, Customer Success Team, and such).
- Categorize requests into specific ideas and themes so that the company can track the number of requests on each.
- Let customers know when an issue has been resolved to make them feel heard.
- Deeply research the product data to understand the true picture and recognize patterns.
- Define those users that interact with the relevant elements of the product and study them deeper.
- Conduct generative interviews to help the team understand what data can’t explain.
- Encourage clients to share their experiences to provide the complete context.
- Come up with multiple solutions and test them to understand which best leads to the desired outcome.
- Try different solutions with different segments to see if they are solving the problem in a desirable and usable way.
- Choose the best option by comparing and contrasting, and ensure the solution solves a real problem.
- Share the “why” with the engineering team, not just the “what”, so they can make decisions that align better with the customer needs.
- Together with developers, present the product to small test groups to collect feedback and usage data.
- As the release improves, test on additional customer segments.
By the way, most of the activities described above are done in cooperation of a product manager with a UX designer.
Delivery lead role and responsibilities
Many product managers in growing companies are getting overwhelmed with project management tasks, which distracts them from their primary duties. And that’s where delivery managers come in handy.
The delivery manager is the kind of project manager most responsible for delivering the product on time and to quality and standards. Their main duty is to speed up the development team’s work by eliminating the obstacles (impediments) that may occur during the development process. For this purpose, delivery leads may communicate with the marketing department, delivery leads from other teams, designers, and more.
The delivery manager is a role, not necessarily a separate position in an organization. Very often delivery leads have a title of a Scrum Master, project manager, or program manager. It doesn’t matter how you call this person if there’s someone to do the job.
Here’s what delivery managers do on a regular basis:
- Monitor and remove impediments, manage risks and dependencies.
- Define optimal team structure and assign people to product delivery teams.
- Ensure that projects and products are regularly delivered according to Agile methodology.
- Promoting continuous iteration on deliverables.
- Maintain contact between the Founder and the team.
- Mentors QA and Tech leads.
- Facilitate and lead main Agile ceremonies such as stand-ups, sprint planning, backlog grooming, and retrospective meetings.
- Maintain projects' timelines and budgets.
- Foster a cooperative, creative, and effective work environment and team performance.
To sum up, the delivery lead position is all focused on assisting the team in pushing projects forward more quickly—not by yelling at them, but by getting rid of roadblocks.
How do I know if I need to hire a product manager, a delivery manager, or both?
When talking about the necessity of hiring a product manager, the short answer would be “yes, you need this professional in your team”. Product managers are primarily responsible for the product’s success, communicating a clear vision and strategy, so they play an essential role in the product development process. In small companies, the role of a product manager is often performed by CEOs, founders, and so on.
As for the delivery manager, we’ve already discussed that this person can have the title of a Scrum Master, project manager, or program manager. If your organization doesn't have a delivery manager (regardless of their title), then the product manager or engineering managers often handle this function. And for small startups, it works completely fine. Though, in case your company has more than five product teams, we’d highly recommend you hire both a product manager and a delivery lead.
After all, it all comes down to the product development team structure and what works better for each specific project.