After many years of working as a product manager and managing product managers in agile and non-agile environments I have become ever more convinced that the agile model could enhance almost any project out there. Heck, I even ended up planning my wedding by applying the very same agile principles that I used to build products (it worked out pretty well, since you’re asking).
But when an old colleague of mine asked me recently what books to recommend to product managers in his new company that wanted to make the transition into agile, I realised to my surprise that I didn’t have a good reading list at hand as much of my learning in the early days of agile has come from on-the-spot training, experimenting, and discussing with people who were passionate about agile. So I asked a few agile rock stars around the block and put my own favourites into the mix to give my old colleague and you this list of “Top 5 books for aspiring Agile Product Managers”.
1. Getting Real, by 37 Signals
I always end up recommending Getting Real to everyone who works with me. This is an incredibly insightful piece of condensed real work experience and an eye opener for most people. It will give you excellent reasons to believe in the 80/20 rule of product development (80 percent of the value comes from 20 percent of the features) and you will never want to write a functional requirement document again – although there might still be good reasons why you would have to sometimes. On top of that, the book is available for free on 37 Signal’s website so it is great for sharing with the guy in the corner who still can’t see the point of aiming for the set of Minimum Marketable Features and is too cheap to buy a book to find out. If you can’t get enough of 37 Signals, their new book “Rework” is also good, but not as great as this one.
2. Agile Product Management with Scrum, by Roman Pichler
This book is the latest and greatest intro to the role of the “Product owner” as the product manager is called in the most common of agile process, Scrum. Written by one of the leading Scrum consultants out there this book gives you a good sense of what the product owner role is all about and all the tools you need to do the role. Probably the best single reference guide on this list.
3. Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love, by Marty Cagan
This great read by seasoned product manager Marty Cagan includes all the basic elements of solid product management that will help you understand how product management fits into the bigger picture of business. More importantly the advice given is in line with the principles of agile and is a great source of practical advice for aspiring agile product managers working for larger organisations. Marty Cagan also gives great advice on the SVPG blog and newsletter that every agile product manager should subscribe to for a weekly dose of reflection.
4. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper has had a profound impact on how the world builds software by pioneering the user centered approach to software development. I must admit I’ve never actually read this book of his, but it comes highly recommended by my old colleague and ex-ZYB’er (now Googler) Morten Just who said something in the lines of this being the single book that had taught him everything he knew about software development (which is a lot!).
5. Agile Project Management with Scrum, by Ken Schwaber
As an aspiring agile product manager you might find yourself in a place where you need to bring the rest of the organisation along with you on the journey towards agile, so agile project management skills often come in handy. This book is a great hands-on guide to implementing Scrum in your organisation and running an agile process. It’s even written by the one of the “founding fathers” of the Scrum process so it stays true to the original principles of agile.
Words of agile advice
I hope you’ll find this list useful as a starting point to learn the agile method and then liberate yourself from it again to develop your own approach to agile that works for you and your team. The thing is, rigorous methodological approaches don’t really do the trick for product management. So much of this discipline is an art more than it is a predictable process, so general mindsets and frameworks tend to work better than strict processes. However, if you are new to the agile way of working, it’s good to familiarise yourself with a process and structure your work according to it – personally I recommend starting with Scrum. Just don’t be religious about it as this would defeat the most important principles of Scrum: “Valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools”
The best agile blogs
As a good supplement to the books mentioned you could also check out these leading agile blogs
Extra: The other 5 books you also could read as an aspiring Agile Product Manager
Mastering the principles of the agile approach and process is only a small part of the very broad skill set required for a great agile product manager. Here are 5 of my personal sources of inspiration from different fields that all relate to product management in some way:
Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, by Geoffrey Bellman – because as a product manager you are almost never the formal line manager of the people who will actually build your product
101 things I learned in Architecture school, by Matthew Frederick – because architecture is the most closely related field to product management (and has been around for much longer)
Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore – because you don’t just want to build a product. You want everyone out there to use it, don’t you?
What Would Google Do, by Jeff Jarvis – because the internet demands new product strategies. Why not learn it from the best and ask WWGD?
The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman – because a great product manager needs to understand the basic principles of usability and human-computer interaction. These principles were laid out already in the 80’ies and everything said about usability since is just chrome on top of the fundamentals you will find in this book.
Feel free to add your own reading suggestions below!