Product owner as a homeowner

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For years people have been comparing software construction with building construction. Think about how we talk about “architecture” or foundations, or the cost of change and so on. As I’ve said before, building software is not like building a house. Now it occurs to me that a better metaphor is the ongoing ownership of the building.

Every building requires “maintenance” and over time buildings change – indeed buildings learn. While an Englishman’s home is his castle those of us, even the English, who are lucky enough to own a house don’t have a free hand in the changes we make to our houses

Specifically I’m thinking about the Product Owner. Being a Product Owner is less about deciding what you want your new house to look like, or how the building should be constructed, its not even about deciding how many rooms the house should have. The role of the Product Owner is to ensure the house continues to be liveable, preferably the house is getting nicer to live in, and the house is coping with the requests made on it.

I own a house – a nice one in West London. As the owner I am responsible for the house. I do little jobs myself – like painting the fences. More significantly I have to think about what I want to do with the house: do we want to do a loft conversion? What would that entail and when might I be able to afford that?

I am the Product Owner of my own house. I have to decide on what is to be done, what can wait and what trade-offs I can accept.

When I bought the house the big thing to change was the kitchen and backroom. There was little point in any other works until those rooms were smashed to bits and rebuilt. I had to think though what was needed by my family, what was possible and what the result might be like. I received quotes from several builders – each of whom had their own ideas about what I wanted. I hired an architect for advice. I looked at what neighbours had done. And I had a hard think about how much money I could spend.

An Englishman’s home is his castle – I am the lord of my house and I can decide what I want, except…

My wife and children have a say in what happens to the house. Actually my wife has a pretty big say, while the children have less say there needs are pretty high on my list of priorities.

My local council and even the government have a say because they place certain constraints on what I can do – planning permission, rules and building codes. The insurance company and mortgage bank set some constraints and expectations too.

My neighbours might not own my house but they are stakeholders: I can’t upset them (too much) and they impose some constraints. (In my first flat/apartment the neighbours were a bigger issue because we shared a roof, a garden and the walls.)

So while I may be lord of my own house I am not a completely a free agent. And the same is true with Product Owners.

The secret with Product Owners is: they are Owners. They are more than managers – managers are just hired help. But neither do POs have a free hand, they don’t have unlimited power, the are not dictators, they are not completely free to do what they want and order people around.

Like me, Product Owners have limited resources available: how much money, how many helpers, access to customers and more. I have to balance my desire for a large loft conversion (with shower, balcony and everything else) with the money I can afford to spend on it. That involves trade-off and compromises. I could go into debt – increase my mortgage – but that comes with costs.

Product owners have responsibilities: to customers and users, to the those who fund the work (like the mortgage bank), to team members and peers to name a few. Some decisions they can make on their own, but on other decisions they can only lead a conversation and guide it towards a conclusion.

What the homeowner metaphor misses entirely is the commercial aspect: my house exists for me to live in. I don’t expect to make money out of it. The house next door to mine is owned by a commercial landlord who rents it out: the landlord is actively trying to make money out of that house.

Most Product Owners are trying to further some other agenda: commercial (generating money), or public sector (furthering Government policies), or third sector (e.g. a charity). In other words: Product Owners are seeking to add value for their organization. This adds an additional dimension because the PO has to justify their decisions to a higher authority.


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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.

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Pandemic in the digital age

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It was hoping to keep this blog virus free. Indeed my “Conflicts in coaching” was going to be the first of several on agile coaching (what else could I do in the air going to and from Agile on the Beach New Zealand?) But…. the world has changed, I’ve changed…

It is a very scary time. Both health wise and economically: I know at least one software engineer who has lost his job as a result of the slow down. But I also know random (inappropriate) coding jobs still appear in my mailbox, I continue to see job adverts on Twitter and LinkedIn and I know one company that has landed work and had to hired contractors to work on a corvid-19 project. So some observations…

Observation 1: Covid-19 will go down in history as the first digital health crisis.

Digital technology has a big role in fighting the virus. Decisions and actions are being driven by software models of what could happen. The famous Imperial model is now OpenSource and Microsoft engineers are reported working to improve the model. (At a few hundred lines of R code there isn’t that much to refactor – although there are some very long functions and I can’t see any unit tests.)

Apps are being created to track contacts and you can bet that the search for antidotes and vaccines is utterly dependent on software. Digital powered home delivery networks and internet shopping have made closing the economy just about possible.

Those who are not directly fighting the virus are continuing to work because of digital technology. Zoom, Skype, and the like might be the most obvious beneficiaries of the virus but many others will benefit too. Although the virus is simultaneously putting a strain on our digital infrastructure and necessitating human action – witness the search for Cobol programmers in the US.

Not only have most IT, sorry digital, workers decamped to home but so too have many others – in fact almost any occupation that can. Schools are delivering lessons and distributing home learning kits online. Industries which can’t move to online working will suffer the most. (Except those which put themselves in harms way like medical staff and, to a lesser degree, delivery staff.)

And when not working online media like Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer keep us sane.

For us digital folk this is no big deal. It is an extension of normal life: we are at home 5 days a week not one. But for other folk, this is big. Even the most digitally inept lawyer is having to get with the technology. As people are forced to become familiar with digital technology …

Observation 2: Digital technology adoption will be accelerated by the virus

Which means, while some technology companies (like my friend’s) will not survive, those that do are set for a boom. Post virus swaths of the economy will be destroyed but technology is in for a boom.

That boom is driven by the three forces above: 1) unlike others, our industry is not destroyed, 2) technologist continue to work remotely, and 3) non-technologist will learn to use more technology.

In particular digital healthcare – both back-office big data background analysis and customer centred applications – will play an oversized part. This field was already growing rapidly but the experience gained during this crisis can only help the sector.

But also…

Observation 3: The economic devastation caused by the virus will open up many new opportunities for digital companies to enter markets and thrive

Companies which fail create opportunities for new companies – either a like-for-like replacement or a new type of company. Previously, while those companies were active, digital technology had to compete with the existing providers, the incumbents. With those companies gone the way is clear for new digital technology companies to enter the market.

I’m not saying this isn’t going to be horrible; company failures will be painful and it new entrants will take time to get established.

And what of Agile?

Observation 4: Covid-19 is the ultimate test of agility

Forget arguments about what is agile and what is not agile. Forget ScrumBut, Wagile and the other insults hurled at those judged to be less agile than thou.

Forget agile assessments and agile maturity frameworks; forget ticking off ceremonies and declaring yourself agile. In the new world the more agile you are the greater your chances of survival.

On paper you may have the most agile team in the world but, if that team, and your organization, cannot now demonstrate how it changes rapidly it just isn’t agile.

Every single plan that existed before March 1st is now invalid. Right now companies need to pivot like never before. Agility helps companies pivot. Those who can’t pivot, or can’t pivot fast enough stand to loose the most. If you can’t pivot you aren’t agile, QED.

Companies which still operate in hierarchal command-and-control mode will find it more difficult to switch to distributed teams and remote working. When everyone is remote you need to delegate decision making. Companies which don’t trust employees, companies which constantly check what employees are doing will find home working incredibly difficult and expensive.

Individuals and interactions are more important than ever before. Processes and tools are essential but few heavy weight processes will survive the instant shift to completely distributed working. Any tool which doesn’t help now is an impediment.

Those companies which are still struggling with technical liabilities (aka technical debt) will find the cost of living with those liabilities just increased.

Observation 5: Test driven medicine

Day after day I read in the papers that the UK is not doing enough testing. It seems that countries like South Korea which do a lot of tests and base their strategy on knowing who is infected (and therefore who is safe) and then tracing the virus are doing best.

That means testing needs to be rapid – a short feedback loop.

And testing needs to be cheap so it can be done at scale.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

The cost of not testing is precautionary isolation. That cost is not sustainable.

If you could test anyone, and everyone, instantly the offices, shops and schools could reopen: you would just test everyone who arrives.

The testing strategy agile has been advocating is now needed to fix the world. And in the UK the Government seems to be as resistant to a test first approach as the most obstinate software manager or engineer.

As much as I hope the world will shortly return to how it was it will not. It will never be the same, we don’t quite know how it will be but it is already clear that digital technology and agility will be part of it.

(Test tube image taken from PublicDomainPctures.net)


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Framing the question frames the answers – my crown jewels

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Today I’m giving away my crown jewels. Once you have read this post I can’t run my favourite exercise with you. There is a bit of experiential learning I can’t give you. So if you’ve rather have the experience stop reading and go and book yourself on my May workshop.

I’m describing an exercise that models what happens in “the real world(tm).” Plenty of the people who have done the exercise recognise it was a real life problem. The insights are many, and some a little disturbing.

Dozens of teams and the answers are always the same. I live in dread that someone will guess and ruin the exercise but it never happens. Now I’m telling the world that might change.

On screen I put a story something like:

As a widget maker I want an online store to sell my widgets so that I can make money

I separate the room into teams. Each team represents a technology supplier – an agency, an outsourcer, whatever. I want each team to competitively bid on a piece of work. Each team gets to think about the problem and estimate the work. At the end I want each team to be ready to name their price, how long it will take and how many people they need. They may add any more details they like, e.g. staging, design, technology, etc. (and most do).

The teams on the right get a story which says:

As an international widget maker I want to sell direct to customers so that I can cut out distributors. I anticipate $10million turnover within 3 years and have budgeted $1.2m for this project.

15 minutes later the teams on the right read out their bids. They always want a million give or take. They want months, if not years. They want teams of half a dozen or more engineers, testers, UXD, analysts and project managers. They may propose an ongoing maintenance contract too.

Very disconcerting for these teams is that while they are answering and taking questions the other teams, those on the left, often burst out laughing – literally – when they hear these proposals.

What neither side knows is that they have different stories. The teams on the left get a story saying:

As an artisan widget maker I want to sell my widgets to customers so that I can give up my day job. When I make $100,000 a year in sales I can live my dream. My accountant tells me a WordPress website will cost $5,000.

These teams want a week or two, an engineer or two and perhaps $10,000 tops. In some cases they say “We can do it this afternoon, we’ll set up Etsy.” Even if they don’t want to use Esty or eBay they probably propose an OpenSource solution.

So what do you think?

True, it is a semi-artificial set-up but I would argue that these situations happen all the time in “the real world” work environment. However they are usually well disguised and hard to see. Maybe now you will spot them.

That aside there are many potential lessons this exercise illustrates, almost everyone is worth a discussion in its own right. To keep things brief I’ll just highlight some of them:

  • Anchoring (cognitive bias): individuals are anchored to those numbers, bigger number lead them to frame their answers as bigger numbers.
  • Assumptions: people jump to assumptions, people automatically fill in the blanks when they lack information and the information they fill in flows from the numbers mentioned. Few questions get asked.
  • Different solutions: the key lesson for me, confronted with similar problems, people (especially engineers) are capable of formulating very different solutions. Those solutions have different time and cost implications.
  • Problem bounding: presenting the same problem with different bounding constraints results in massively different solutions.
  • Effort estimates, and therefore cost estimates, flow from value: whether through anchoring assumptions or solution designs the estimates (time and money) flow from the value available NOT the other way around.
  • Prior experience often goes out the window. In one run a low-end teams told me: “We did this last week. A digital consultant showed us how to install WordPress and Magento for online retail in the morning and in the afternoon we did it ourselves.” While this team came up with a low cost proposal their colleagues who were given the $1m story forgot everything they learned last week.
  • People don’t ask questions: I answer questions while teams are creating their answers but people rarely challenge what is asked for. Maybe its because I’m usually in some position of authority as a consultant or workshop trainer and my word should be followed.

Occasionally a team with the million dollar story say “We could do this with eBay/WordPress/Shopify.” I keep a poker face and let them be. Inevitably left alone for long enough they talk themselves into a much more complex and expensive bid.

In fact, the longer I give teams the higher the estimates go. I heard a team in Australia say three times “Those estimates look low, lets double them.” And they did. (Again, planning has diminishing returns.)

So far nobody has offered two solutions: you could offer up a Shopify solution and a custom build solution but nobody has.

While we are going through the exercise the minimal viable product idea often gets mentioned – usually by the teams on the right. So recently I introduced a third story. This read the same as the international widget maker but has an extra paragraph underneath:

MacAllan consulting has advised the company to take an iterative and agile approach to this work using a minimally viable product model.

How do you think teams respond?

Think for a minute… your answer is?

It makes no difference.

Or rather, so far I’ve not had any of the million dollar teams propose anything close to the $5,000 solution. In one case a team with the MVP story actually came in more expensive – and longer – than the million dollar team without the MVP clause.

My learning here: talking MVP makes no difference. If you want an MVP you have to impose constraints. (Hence try an MVT.)

People continue to fill in the blanks after the charade is exposed. I’ve heard software architects argue forcefully they these are different problems because of the money involved and therefore require different architecture. They clearly feel cheated and want to justify the proposal they have made. I suspect they feel I’ve made them look silly and want to undo that impression, I’m sorry if I’ve made anyone feel silly.

I wonder how often that happens in the work place? How many of us would back down in real life? I’d like to think I would but I would probably first try and justify my position.

The architects have a point, in many ways the stories are functionally the same but the differences lie in the non-functional requirements: load, throughput, security and so on. But all of that is inferred by people from the price tag without question.

It makes me sad that teams ask so few questions. People easily see themselves as a tailor not as a consultant (my Tailor or Image consultant post.)

Then there are the questions about the bidding process and companies bidding on the work.

Imagine you are the buyer: one supplier bids really low, the others were much higher but inline with your expectations. Would you trust the low bid? Have they blow their credibility?

And as a bidder: if you know the client plans to spend $1,000,000 why bid lower? The engineers cost estimates and designs aren’t relevant. Ideally you bid just below the competition. You are the lowest price with all the credibility and maximum revenue.

For that matter, should you be bidding on this at all?

If you work for a small e-commerce provider in rural Cornwall you may never know about, let alone, bid on a million dollar piece of work from an American multi-national. And if you did, would anyone take you seriously?

Suppose you got your big break: you walk in and offer a quick, low cost solution based on something like Shopify. Would they take you seriously? Would they want to listen?

Do corporations increase their own costs simply by being?

Conversely, if you work for a big consultancy and bid on million dollar deals every week will you be interested in bidding on a $5,000 piece of work? Of course not!

But that also means that if a corporation approaches you for a million dollar online shop, even if you could deliver it in a week’s time running on a third party platform do you have any incentive?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Indeed, there aren’t any right answers. All answers are valid, just some answers are “better” in some places than others.

Ultimately the lesson I take away from this is: we craft solutions within constraints.

More specifically: Engineers engineer within constraints, that is what engineers do.

That reinforces my belief that one needs to really understand benefit (value) and how that changes with time. From there we can work back to a solution.

If you would like to see this exercise for real then book yourself my Requirements, Backlogs and User Stories workshop. If you are in London Learning Connexions are running this again in May.


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Requirements, User Stories & Backlog

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At the end of January I’m running my 1-day Requirements, User Stories and Backlogs workshop in London with Learning Connexions. I get great feedback from people who attend the course, perhaps because it is mostly exercised based.

If your interested check out the Learning Connexions page – its just one day and won’t break the bank! Hope to see you there.

Flipping job descriptions

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When was the last time you read your job description? Or, if it is a separate document, your “roles and responsibilities” description?

My guess it was about the time you applied for your current position. Of course, someone decided to change your description you might have read the new document but even then, did you?

I now I’m atypical because I haven’t had a job description for a long time but I honestly can’t recall ever reading them after I got the job. And I’m not even sure I read them much before then. Once you get beyond the title most of it is boiler plate and I quickly loose interest.

My guess is most people remember little more then the job title.

Like so many documents, it goes in one eye and out the other. The longer it is, the less you are likely to remember.

So it won’t surprise you when I say: I don’t think roles and responsibilities documents have much use. And it might not surprise you when I say roles are pretty pointless too.

To my mind your personal sense of identity, your own idea of who you are and what you do, plays a much bigger role in the actions you take in work and the responsibilities you accept – and those you ignore.

If, for example, your business card says: “Business Analyst”. It is not because someone defined your work as a “Business Analyst” it is because you see yourself as a business analysts and your sought out a business analyst job. What you less to do with what it says in some document, it has more to do with how you define yourself and therefore your role.

If you consider yourself to be a programmer, a software engineer, software developer or whatever, then you may shun business cards altogether. That again is part of your sense of identity. Identity is a far bigger driver of what you do than any document.

Try this: imagine you go to a meetup for people like you – be you a business analyst, a programmer, a tester or whatever. The room is full of people who share your job title – and similar role and responsibility documents. You see an inspiring speaker who advocates people like you – with your job title – undertake a new activity called XYZ. You see how it can benefit your work.

When you go to work the next day do you: look for opportunities to apply XYZ, or do you find your roles and responsibilities document and check whether XYZ falls within your remit?

For some years I’ve been wanting to try and experiment – but I need a really forward looking, daring, company to work with me on this. I want to flip recruitment.

The company advertises a job by title with few, if any, details. They ask people to apply not with a CV (resume) but with the job description they would write for such a job. The candidate sets out the role and responsibilities as they see it. The company then interviews those people who write the description that bests matches their own thinking and the candidates get to explain how they would live up to that description.

Crazy erh?


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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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New book: The Art of Agile Product Ownership

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Retrospective cards, product Owners and #NoProjects

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A quick follow up on my last two blog post.

First, Team Retrospective cards – above – are now available for sale:

Both sites accept other credit cards so don’t worry if you have another currency and we can post anywhere – if you get stuck get in touch and we’ll find a way that works.

Second, as discussed in my last blog – Mission Impossible: the Product Owner – I delivered a presentation on that subject at the Oredev conference in Malmo last week. The slides are available for download: Mission Impossible: the Product Owner.

In retrospect I think the presentation should have had a big question mark (“?”) in the title. In many ways I’m asking “Is the Product Owner role impossible to fill well?”. I had some really good discussions on this topic after I gave the presentation and I will blog more about the role soon. In the meantime check out my new book if you want more of my thinking, The Art of Agile Product Ownership.

Finally, while I was at Oredev I gave another presentation: Evolution: from #NoProjects to Continuous Digital (also available for download). This presentation itself was an evolution. So I’ve christened this version the “2020 edition” to distinguish it from the earlier version. I am attempting to do two things here:

One, be clear that the #NoProjects argument has itself moved forward. When #NoProjects began in 2013 the argument was very much “The project model is not a good fit for software development.” Now, as we approach 2020, the argument has moved on: business (and just about everything else) is digital, in a digital world advancement means technology (software) change. Therefore rather than following a start-stop-start-stop project model are organizations need to structure themselves for continuous digital technology enhancement.

Two, building on that argument I try to talk more about how our companies need to update their thinking. Specifically what does the new management model needs to look like?

More on all these subjects in my usual depth soon.

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New book: The Art of Agile Product Ownership

Mission Impossible: the Product Owner

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Is the product owner role impossible to fill well?

Do we set product owners up to fail?

Have you ever worked with a really excellent product owner? Someone you would be eager to work with again?

The lack of really outstanding product owners isn’t the fault of the individuals. I think product owners are asked to do a difficult job and are not supported the way they should be. Worse still, in many organizations the role of product owners is misunderstood, they are seen as a type of delivery manager when in fact they are a type of product owner.

There questions have been on my mind for a while, next month I’m giving a new presentation I’m Oredev in Malmo – and which coincides perfectly with the publication of my new book The Art of Agile Product Ownership (funny that). So by way of preview…

I’ve long argued that product owners need four things in order to do the job well: skills, authority, legitimacy and time. Lets look at each in turn:

1. Skills: the kind of thing a product owner learns on a Certified Scrum Product Owner course are table stakes. Yes POs need to be able to write user stories, split stories, write acceptance criteria, understand agile and scrum, work with teams, plan a little and so on. While necessary such skills are not sufficient.

The bigger question is:

How does a product owner know what they need to know in order to do these things?
How do they know what customers want?
How do they know what will make a difference?

Product owners need more skills. Some POs deliver products which must sell in the market to customers who have a choice. Such POs need to be able to identify customers, segment customers and markets, interview customers, analyse data, understand markets, monitor competitors and much more. In short they need the skills of a product manager.

Other POs work with internal customers who don’t have a choice over what product they use, here the PO needs other skills: stakeholder identification and management, business and process analysis, user observation and interviewing, they need to be aware of company politics and able to manage up. In other words, they need the skills of a business analyst.

And all POs need knowledge of their product domain. Many POs are POs because they are in fact subject matter experts.

That is a lot of skills for any one person. How many product owners have the right skills mix? And if they don’t, how many of them get the training they need?

2. Authority: Product owners need at least the authority to walk in to a planning meeting and state the work they would like done in the next two weeks. They need the authority to set this work without being contradicted by some other person, they need the authority to visit customers and get their expenses paid without having to provide a lengthy explation every time.

3. Legitimacy: Product owners need to be seen as the right person to set the priorities. The right person to visit customers, the right person to agree plans and write roadmaps. They need to be seen as the right person by the organisation, by peers and, most importantly, by the development team.

Authority and legitimacy are closely related but they are not the same thing. While the product owner needs both the lack of either results in the same problem: people don’t take their work seriously and other people try to set the agenda on what to build.

Unfortunately Scrum contains a seldom noticed problem here: product owners are team members, they are peers; the team are self organising and are responsible for delivering the product. (There is an egalitarian ethos even if this is only Implicit.)

But Scrum sets the PO as the one, and only one, who can tell he team what to do.

There is a contradiction.

4. Time: Product owners need time to do their work – which is a lot, just read that skills list and think about what the PO should be doing. And don’t forget the PO is a human being who needs to sleep for seven or eight hours a night, may well have a family and a home to go to.

When does the product owner get to do all of this?

Leave aside the question of where you find such people, or whether our companies pay them enough and ask yourself: do product owners get the support they need from their companies and teams?

So often the PO ends up in conflict with the company about what will be built and when it will be delivered, and they end up in conflict with their team about… well much the same issues every planning meeting.

Think about it: do we ask too much from our product owners?

Do we set up product owners to fail?

I’d love to hear your opinions, comment on this post or drop me a note or leave a comment.

I’m going to leave you hanging here today. In the Oredev presentation I’ll try and suggest some solutions – and there are some in the Art of Product Ownership. (Last year I described one in The Product Owner refactored: the SPO/TPO model.)


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Check out my books – The Art of Agile Product OwnershipContinuous Digital and Project Myopia – and the Project Myopia audio edition

The Product Owner Delta

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As regular readers might know I’m working on a book called The Art of Product Ownership to be published by Apress later this year. One of the chapters is entitled “Why have a Product Owner” and a few days ago a bunch of ideas crystallised into this…

The aim of the Product Owner is to increase, even maximise, the business value delivered by the team as a whole. The Product Owner does not so much create value themselves as increase the value created by others.

Think of it like this: if the team randomly selected work to do and delivered it to customers then some value would be created. (For the moment I’ll ignore the scenario where that work detracts from the existing value.) The aim of the PO is to ensure the work done creates more value than a simple random selection. The greater the difference, or delta to use a mathematical term, between random selection and an informed selection the better.

The general hypothesis is that intelligent selection of work by a skilled Product Owner will result in both more value being delivered and an increasing delta between intelligent PO selected work and randomly selected work.

This difference the value added by a Product Owner. I like to call this difference the Product Owner Delta.

Now in real life work is seldom randomly so Product Owners are not competing against random selection. In some cases the alternative to a designated Product Owners is someone else: a senior developer, an architect, a manager or someone else. In such cases this person is taking on the Product Owner role. They may not have the title, the aptitude, the skills or official position but when work is selected by one person they are de facto the Product Owner.

In other cases the alternative to the PO might be selection by consensus on the team, or a sub-set of the team. Now it is entirely possible that such a group could outperform a single Product Owner in selecting work – especially is they have market and customer knowledge, some analysis skills, time to do the background research and so on. In some cases this works, for example think of a small start-up staffed by software developers creating software development tools.

However, in some cases selection by committee might be inferior to a random selection. Imagine a team which has never met a customer, argue about what to do, duck key decisions and never say No to any request. Its easy to image a dysfunctional selection committee.

There is more to increasing the Product Owner Delta than simply selecting the highest value items. Timely selection can help too. If decisions are not being made, or committees are spending a long time making decisions then having one person simply make those decisions in an efficient, timely, manner can increase the delta.

Time has another role. Because of cost-of-delay simply selecting the highest value items at any one point in time does not maximise the value delivered. Time Value Profiles (see Little Book of User Stories or my presentations on value “How much? When?”) expose this and need to be another tool in the Product Owners repertoire.

And of course, the Product Owner Delta is not the only reason to have a Product Owner in the team, but it is probably the main reason.


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Check out my latest books – Continuous Digital and Project Myopia – and the Project Myopia audio edition