The problem with Product Owners

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After submitting his review of The Art of Agile Product Ownership one of the reviewers sent me a note about the review was and said:

“Gee, I really wish I could be that type of Product Owner.”

His comment made me smile. He nicely summarised much of the argument in Art of PO. The book makes a case for an expansive product owner – one with product management skills and business analysis skills; a product owner who looks to improve value over the short and long run, and for product owners with more customer empathy and marketing skills than code empathy and technical skills.

Many of the Product Owners I meet aren’t really owners of the product. Rather they are “Backlog Administrators” and as such the industry is creating another problem for itself.

Over the years the product owner role has been diluted, so many product owners are not really owners of their products. Instead their role is limited and constricted. They are judged on how many features they get the team deliver, whether those features are delivered by some date or whether they have met near term goals of doing the things customers – or internal users – are complaining about.

In other words the whole team is a feature factory: requests go in and success is measured by how many of those requests reach production.

Sure that is one way to run a team, and in some places that might be the “right” way to do it (a team dedicated to addressing production/customer issues perhaps.)

Unfortunately agile is prone to this failing because of the sprint-sprint-sprint nature of work. The things in front of you are obviously more valuable than the things that are not. The people shouting at you today obviously represent greater value than those who are sitting quietly asking nicely. And both groups can mask bigger insights and opportunities.

Hang on you say: Is this the same Allan who has argued against long term planning? And against analysis phases? The Allan who always argues for action this day?

Well, yes I am that Allan. And I agree that I regularly argue that teams should get started on coding and limit planning and analysis.

But that doesn’t mean I’m against these things, it only means I’m conscious of the diminishing returns of planning; and I know that what is technically possible frames not only the solution but the problem – because often we can’t conceive of the problem until we see how a solution might change things.

Teams need to watch out for the “bigger” questions. Teams need to take some time to thing long term. Time needs to be spent away from the hurly-burly of sprint-sprint-sprint to imagine a different world. Dis-economies of scale may rule but there still needs to be consideration of larger things, e.g. jobs to be done over user stories.

The responsibility rests with the Product Owner.

They own the product the way I own my house: I have to pay the mortgage and I have to change blow light bulbs but I also need to think: how long will the roof last? Will we build an extension? When will we rebuild the patio? And where am I going to put a car charging point when that day comes?

I don’t take those decisions in isolation, I don’t spend lots of time on them and I don’t let them get in the way of work today. But spending a little time thinking about them, and I may well leader on the discussion. Taking a little time to think through out how things might fit together (don’t do the roof until after the extension is built) has benefits.

And so many Product Owners aren’t doing that. Worse still their organizations don’t expect them to. Maybe they see an Architects doing that, or a Product Manager – or maybe nobody does.

The thing is: the Product Owner is the OWNER.

Managers and architects are hired and fired as needed. The buck stops with owners.

Many organizations have got this the wrong way round. The Product Owner role is diluted and individual Product Owners emasculated.

Advertisement: at the time of writing there are still a few tickets available for my online User Stories Masterclass beginning this Wednesday, 90 minutes each week for 4 weeks.

1 thought on “The problem with Product Owners”

  1. Thanks, Alan for sharing your views. I work as a sales manager in the manufacturing industry. We face challenges in handling Backlog administrators who are said to be product owners. Hope the post helps to improve my business strategy.

    Reply

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