Agile insights from LitheSpeed

Three Keys to Successful Product Ownership

The Product Owner is both one of the most important roles in Scrum and often the most difficult to fill. In this post, I will explore a few aspects of successful product ownership that are often done poorly or not at all.

Manage Both the Big Vision and the Small Batches

Keeping a balance between the development of product qualities that will fulfill the business case and the tactical execution of low-level features is perhaps the most important skill possessed by a Product Owner. The difficulty in simultaneously doing both of these things well often leads to an actual split in the role, where a “Strategic” or “Chief” Product Owner focuses on the big picture, and the “Tactical” or “Proxy” Product Owner works with individual teams attending to the details of execution. Tools like story mapping, product trees and personas are commonly applied at the big picture level by Strategic POs, while sketches, wireframes, process flows and various collaborative modeling techniques are generally employed by Tactical POs to help teams better understand and execute the details.

Strategic product ownership is focused on garnering feedback and testing the project’s assumptions at the vision and business case level, while tactical product ownership should align the whole team against small batches of work within sprints to ensure the best execution possible at the detailed level.

Test the Project’s Assumptions

Business cases are often presented as foregone conclusions: Build the features, and they will come. However, there is no shortage of failed and unloved products to prove that this is nonsense. Projects are built upon more or less educated guesses of what the market and stakeholders need and desire, and it is the Product Owner’s job to test and refine these assumptions, thereby guiding change through objective data.

Techniques such as customer development in the “Lean Startup” approach focus on stating your assumptions in such a way that they can be tested, and then using feedback from these tests to adjust the project’s focus. The simple process of coming up with metrics that represent the product’s desired qualities and impact areas also can be of tremendous help when attempting to balance diverse needs across disharmonious stakeholders, as it forces a focus on overall project needs rather than individual features. In essence, the why must precede the how.

Use the Whole Team

When Scrum was first formulated, a joke cast the “team” as committed “pigs” while the Product Owner (along with general stakeholders) was dubbed a merely involved “chicken.” This is an unfortunate place to draw the line, because these two roles work best as a tight-knit partnership. Scrum teams already play an active role in design and feature elaboration, and the best products come from fully engaged teams, not ones that simply wait for their orders or ones design in a vacuum.

Collaborative modeling techniques, where designs are created and refined by small groups rather than individuals, are common in such environments. Finding the right balance between giving the team a “final, approved” design to develop vs. involving them deeply in the design process itself isn’t automatic or consistent across teams, but it is the only way to maximize both the efficiencies so often touted in Agile methods with product innovation, effectiveness and quality.

I hope you’ve found this post useful. If you have any other questions about how to be an effective Scrum Product Owner, share them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer all of them in future posts.