You know the Agile Product Owner role is critical. How you approach it can make the difference between profitable success or costly failure. But what exactly makes for effectiveness?
I’ve seen a good number of very different people tackle the role. Here’s what the successful ones all do well:
1. Share the vision
It’s no use having developed the greatest product vision statement ever if the team don’t understand it. Effective product owners know success depends on creating a shared understanding and buy-in. Rather than simply telling others the vision, they share it using stories about how the product will make life better for the customer and how the product vision aligns with the company vision. For maximum buy-in, they get development teams involved in creating the vision statement right from the start.
2. Stick to the vision
The vision gives you a clear destination to head for, no matter what the twists and turns on the way. With every decision, effective product owners think through the implications for the vision. Where a diversion from the expected route is unavoidable, they find a way to bring activity back on track. In our simple guide to product vision statements we give the analogy of a pilot heading to New York. It’s the pilot’s job to get the plane to JFK, regardless of what happens en route.
3. Focus relentlessly on value
The product owner’s role isn’t to get a piece of software delivered but to give the business something of value. Effective product owners know this value only comes when you change the behaviour of real users in such a way that the benefits they set out to achieve are realised. They focus on building only what is required to achieve this desired outcome, and work on what elements will deliver the greatest value first.
Jeff Patton sums it up neatly in ‘User Story Mapping: Discover the whole story, build the right product.’
Your job isn’t to build more software faster: it’s to maximize the outcome and impact you get from what you choose to build.
There are a number of pretty cool Lean prioritisation tools you can use; at Clearscape, we regularly help clients make decisions about what to tackle first using attributes such as business value, time criticality and risk reduction.
4. Trust the collective intelligence
Truly effective product owners never assume they have the best ideas about how a solution should look. Instead, they understand the most best guarantee of developing a successful product is to trust the collective intelligence of the team.
Sound chaotic? It needn’t be. As Eric Reis says in “The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses”-
Innovation is a bottoms-up, decentralized, and unpredictable thing, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be managed.
5. Let people play
In Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he explains that the joy of problem solving is deep rooted: even monkeys solve problems purely for the fun of it.
Effective product owners understand that setting people an intellectual challenge turns work from a dull chore into a game that’s fun to play – and that this brings a whole host of rewards for the business.
Give people the desired outcome and let them figure out the answer for themselves, and you get not only a better product but also a more motivated and committed team and a happier workplace.
6. Don’t rely on user stories alone
I chuckle every time I read another article presenting user stories as the silver bullet of Agile. That’s because no matter how good you are, you can’t document everything in such a way that it isn’t interpreted differently by different people. Effective product owners understand the need to have lots and lots of conversations, with lots and lots of people.
Jeff Patton again:
Stories aren’t a written form of requirements; telling stories through collaboration with words and pictures is a mechanism that builds shared understanding. Stories aren’t the requirements; they’re discussions about solving problems for our organization, our customers, and our users that lead to agreements on what to build.
Quite simply, conversations create shared understanding. I’ve written more about this in Free Agile Tools that Work.
7. Expect mistakes; give credit for successes
There’s no shame in failure if you learn from it. Effective product owners expect to make mistakes; the trick is to fail in such a way you can recover from it. This means failing faster and in small increments. If you’re not sure about something, it’s fine to try it – just recognise when it’s not working, learn, and move on.
Equally when things go well, effective product owners are the first to give credit, because they understand nothing motivates a team more than feeling valued and appreciated.
Being an effective product owner doesn’t happen by chance. Those who are successful display sound leadership skills: they know where they are heading and bring others with them on the journey, they communicate and collaborate well, and they value the teams they work with (and show it).