Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Product Ownership is Challenging and Rewarding

The Product Owner role is essential but can be extremely challenging to fill.   Most organizations struggle to find someone with the right blend of skill and experience to fulfill this role perfectly.  Before we explore why that is, let us define what the role entails.  

Roman Pinchler, author of Agile Product Management with Scrumdescribes the role as "the individual who champions the product, who facilitates the product decisions, and who has the final say about the product."1   The ideal product owner has to have:

  • Vision for the product(s) they own
  • Strong understanding of their customer(s)
  • Deep domain expertise
  • Ability to collaborate with multiple stakeholders
  • Authority and respect throughout the organization
  • Time and willingness to work with team to describe his / her vision 
  • Leadership style to motivate others to see that vision and work with the team to achieve it 
Having been a product owner for several years, I know the pitfall and rewards of this role.  In his article, The Product Owner and the Product-Shaped Hole, Jeff Patton jokingly suggests product owners should wear "spandex and a cape” given the super-hero-like demands placed on them.4  

Organizational context and product maturity greatly influence the expectations on a product owner.  For example, if you’re responsible for delivering a new product that will change how we sell products to our customers that is a very different challenge than inheriting an internal business system that has been in production for 10+ years.  If you are responsible for delivering a new product, you are likely to be judged as an "entrepreneur" or “intrapreneurs,” while an owner of a mature product might be judged on how well they maximize the return on investment on a series of enhancements.1 This is does NOT imply that product owners of mature products are less inventive than those building new products, or that one is easier or more valuable than the other.  Understanding how your product fits into the larger ecosystem of the organization you are working in is critical to the choices you make as a product owner.  

Most agile literature on product ownership takes it as a given constraint that there is ONE product owner per product.  This is certainly a best practice, but in many resource-constrained organizations that I’ve worked, teams often support more than one product, and sometimes product owners support more than one team.  If you find yourself supporting multiple products or multiple teams, do the best you can to protect the team from context switching and churn by helping to focus the team’s effort and coming to planning sessions fully prepared.  Furthermore, leverage the talent on your team to see how you can involve them more and take some of the load off your shoulders.   

Here are some suggestions that I offer to product owners, regardless of the organizational context, product maturity, or number of products you support:
  • Focus on outcome, not output  – Outcome is what we expect to happen after the software ships. We can only improve if we assess whether what we deliver is meeting its intended purpose. Furthermore, teams are motivated by knowing that what they build is expected to move the needle. 
  • Involve the Team - Resist the feeling that you need to figure it out on your own. Present the team with the opportunity or problem you’re looking address, and they’ll find a solution that works and likely be more engaged as part of being involved in product envisioning. 
  • Talk and test with actual customers – Why not learn from the people you are looking to serve. Validating your assumptions or being able to course correct will greatly improve your product offering.
  • Communicate with Your Stakeholders – As a product owner, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you’re effectively prioritizing and sharing feedback from stakeholders and representing your team well back out to stakeholders.
While challenging at times, I have found product ownership to be one of the most rewarding jobs because you have an opportunity to work with motivated team members and deliver true value to an organization.  


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