Product ownership behind the scenes
- White Paper
- Customer engagement
- Information management
- IT Services
July 27, 2020 |
7 min read
- White Paper
- Customer engagement
- Information management
- IT Services
This white paper discusses how, while every product owner role is different, the core traits of a good product owner are constant.
Product owners are responsible for optimizing product value and connecting development teams with the wider organization. They are a source of prioritized demand, so they need to have strong negotiating skills, decision-making authority, and a good understanding of business operations.
Product owners manage the product backlog by prioritizing items, then working with their team to deliver those items by setting acceptance criteria, reviewing and signing-off work, and so on.
But the product owner role is like an iceberg: the majority of the work is below the surface, as illustrated in Figure 1.1.
Four things Product owners need
There are four things that every product owner needs to fulfil their role.
2.1 SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE
Product owners need more than story writing and backlog management skills. They need skills in stakeholder management, requirements analysis, market research, customer segmentation, and more. People with a business analysis or product management background usually have these skills, but technical staff are often promoted into the role of product owner without sufficient training. A change in title does not equate to upskilling, and most product owner certification courses are too short to impart the experience and skills that are needed.
At a minimum, a product owner should be able to enter a sprint planning meeting and outline the delivery priorities for the next two weeks. They might discuss these priorities with the team and alter plans if necessary, but long debates in planning meetings are counter-productive. There should never be a situation where the product owner is continually challenged in planning meetings.
Equally importantly, team members should not change their priorities after the planning meeting without the product owner’s authorization. The organization needs to give the product owner the authority to manage and direct the team’s workflow, and back them up if any team member disregards their direction.
Even if the product owner has been formally granted authority, they may lack legitimacy. The team and other members of the organization must recognize the product owner as the legitimate person to make prioritization calls.
For example, if the product owner wants to visit a customer abroad, they should be able to. The direct customer contact will bolster the product owner’s legitimacy and give them the knowledge they need to prioritize work items.
Product owners must be given the time they need to do their job. They need time to think about user stories, filter and edit the backlog, visit customers, meet stakeholders, feedback, work with the team, evaluate post-delivery benefit realization, and think.
When time is short, product owners walk into planning meetings unprepared and have to rush to sort through their backlog. Usually, opinion takes the place of analysis, and those who shout loudest get what they want. This is why it is so important to give product owners time and help from the team.
There are three roles related to the role of product owner that can provide insight into the qualities and skills product owners need. These roles are business analyst, product managers, and entrepreneurs.
Product owners with backgrounds in one or more of these roles can be very successful: those from other backgrounds will need to learn some of their primary skills.
3.1 BUSINESS ANALYSTS
For many product owners, the skills and experience of business analysis are invaluable. This is because product owners often need to engage in stakeholder identification and management requirements solicitation, particularly when bespoke products are being developed for specific customers. Skills in analysing processes, identifying improvement opportunities, and evaluating change impacts are essential.
Perhaps the most significant difference between product owners and business analysts relates to scope and authority. Some business analysts are concerned with the business case, and others are concerned with details; good product owners are involved in both. This wider scope, as well as the fast-paced nature of their work, means that product owners typically have more authority than business analysts.
Sometimes a business analyst will be attached to an Agile team. When this happens, the business analyst and product owner roles overlap. If there is no business analyst on the team, the product owner is responsible for the work. On a small team, it would probably be unnecessary to have both roles.
3.2 PRODUCT MANAGERS
In many ways, product managers are similar to business analysts: both roles are responsible for defining demand and communicating that to the delivery team.
A typical business analyst is concerned with improving the business and the majority of their stakeholders are in their organization and share a common goal. Conversely, product managers’ products sell to customers who work elsewhere. This means that meeting external customers and discussing their needs is essential. But unlike business analysts (who usually work on funded projects), product managers need to focus on selling their products to an uncertain market. They have to understand the market dynamics, competitors, product lifecycles, opportunities, threats, and more.
In a fast-moving product environment, these skills are crucial. Separating market analysis and strategy in a specialist team reduces flexibility and speed, so these duties should be part of the product manager or product owner roles.
Product owners are frequently described as entrepreneurs for their product. Such product owners are driven; they want to see their product succeed! This is admirable, but these product owners are often overworked, which is unsustainable.
Like entrepreneurs, product owners need both vision and determination, but they also need to be open to other perspectives. Product owners should listen more than they talk and be willing to alter their plans in response to new information in order to increase the chance of success.
It is important to encourage an experimental approach to product discovery, which means accepting that some experiments will fail. For example, some product updates will delivered without much reaction from customers. If this happens, it should be welcomed as feedback and fed back into the discovery process.
There are two key takeaways from this paper. Firstly, every product owner is different, and the specifics of the role will depend on the organization, but the core traits of a good product owner are constant. Some product owners use business analysis skills every day. Others are more like entrepreneurs. Product owners need subject matter knowledge and project management skills, but no two product managers will need or use the same proportion of skills.
The second key takeaway is that, although a product owner role description may only include maximizing value delivered, writing user stories, and managing backlogs, the best product owners do a lot more. They undertake business analysis to understand what the company needs, visit customers, think about market demand, and constantly champion the product. Most people see only the smallest amount of the product owner role. There is far more happening under the surface.