Product Owner: all about the what

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I feel compelled to write this blog because I keep coming across the wrong type of Product Owner. I feel bad about writing this blog because a) I’ve made these points before in other forums so I’m repeating myself, and b) at the end of the day you, your team, and your organization, is free to define and use any title you like for any role you like, you are free to define any given role as you like.

So let me set out my model of a Product Owner and then at least there is a model to compare any other definition with.

Our old friend the Triangle of Constraints can help here – also know as “The Iron Triangle” and pictured above (I like to call it the FRT triangle). Now notice the version I use is slightly different from the more common model:

  • Rather than “cost” I label one side of the triangle “People”. I could label it resources but in software development resources are overwhelmingly people and the knowledge they bring. People deserve respect, calling them “resources” makes them sound like paperclips.
  • For software development costs are function of how many people you have and how long you have them for: costs = people x time. OK, there are some other “resources” to add to costs, e.g. buying laptops, renting time in the cloud, and so on but these are often themselves a function of the number of people you have. Such costs are a small increment on top of the wage bill.

Now the number of people you have is fixed in the short term, or to be more accurate: it is upward fixed. People can get ill or resign at anytime but adding people takes time. So in the short run one can consider that dimension fixed.

Time is also fixed. There is usually a business deadline, or rather a business benefit which is time elastic so you have a date to aim for. And on agile teams there are sprint deadlines (two-weeks, two-weeks, two weeks). So a large part time is fixed.

The final side of the triangle is labelled features or functionality, but might be labelled “requirements”, “the what” or “what are we building” – I like to think of it as the demand side.

With me so far? – so far that should be uncontroversial.

Now the traditional Project Manager role, and to a lesser degree the newer Delivery Manager role, tend to regard the third side – the what side – as fixed. There is a thing to be delivered. It is a known thing. It has been decided on and the manager’s job is to get it delivered.

To this end Project Managers are trained to regard the “thing to be built” as a given, preferably fixed, thing. Their training centres on the other sides: cost and time. They are trained both in rationing these commodities and allocating them in an efficient way. When things go wrong these managers ask for more time (which means more money because the same people need paying) or more people (which both costs more and makes things worse because of Brook’s Law).

So to summarise: traditional Project Managers focus on “when” and the input variables: people/resources and money.

Can you guess what I’m going to say next?

Product Owners – plus Product Managers and Business Analysts – focus on the “what”. What do we need to build next? What has the most benefit? What should we be building for the future?

For Product Owners the time and people are fixed. (This is most obvious in an agile environment but is actually true everywhere sooner or later.)

The thing being built is negotiable, the desired outcome may be achieved by different routes, different technologies and different solutions – the different time and cost will be a consideration but outcome is the primary focus.

In other words: Product Owners are all about the what.

In order to operate in the what-space product owners need authority and legitimacy to flex what they are building. When they don’t have that they are reduced to backlog administrators simply ordering the backlog and feeding it to technical teams. That turns the role into a type of Project or Delivery Manager.

So if you need to tell a real Product Owner from all the other misinterpretations of the role ask:

  • Does the product owner focus on what?
  • Can the product owner discuss different solutions and approaches to achieve an outcome?
  • Is the PO flexible about the backlog? (as opposed to slavishly trying to deliver it all)

Real product owners can answer Yes to all three.

(Notice I’m deliberately being careful in what I say about “Delivery Managers.” This role is still emerging and as such its wrong to generalise about it too much. In so much as a Delivery Manager brings management skills, communication and organization to an effort it can be a positive role. When a Delivery Manager is relabelling of the Project Manager role it can be damaging.)

Now that said, the fact that some organizations choose to define the “Product Owner” role as a role closer to “Project Manager” or “Delivery Manager” rather than a role closer to “Product Manager”, “Business Analyst” or (heaven forbid) business owner causes a lot of confusion.

Perhaps I’m wrong here, perhaps the “Product Owner” is a type of “delivery manager” but I think the majority of writers, thinkers and practitioners agree with me.

Even if you disagree with me I hope we can agree on one thing: because there are different interpretations and implementations of the role there is room for confusion; and that confusion makes it harder to fill the role and harder to be seen as a successful Product Owner.


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