Product Owners need 4 things

iStock_000008515543Small-2018-03-5-16-09.jpg

To be an effective Product Owner – and that includes product managers and business analysts who are nominating work for teams to do – you need at least four things. You may well need more than these four but these are common across all teams and domains.

  1. 1. Skills and experience

There is more to being a Product Owner than simply writing user stories and prioritising a backlog. Yes, you need to know how to work with a development team and how to work in an Agile-style process. Yes you need to be able to write user stories and acceptance criteria, perhaps BDD style cucumbers too; yes you need to be able to manage a backlog and prioritises and partake in planning meetings.

But how do you know what should be a priority?
How do you know what will deliver value? And please customers? Satisfy stakeholders?

Importantly Product Owners need to be able to do the work behind the backlog.

Product Owners need to meet people, have the conversations, do the analysis and thinking behind those things. Any idiot can pick random items form a backlog but it takes skills and experience to maximise value.

Product Owners need to be able to identify users, segment customers, interview people, understand their needs and jobs to be done. They need to know when to run experiments and when to turn to research journals and market studies. And that might mean they need data analysis skills too.

If the product is going to sell as a commercial product you will need wider product management skills. While if your product is for internal use you need more business analysis skills. And product managers will benefit from knowing about business analysts and business analysts will benefit from knowing about product management.

You may also need specialist domain knowledge – you might need to be a subject matter expert in your own right, or you might become an SME in given time.

Some understanding of business strategy, finance, marketing, process analysis and design, user experience design and more.

Don’t underestimate the skills and experience you need to be an effective Product Owner.

  1. 2. Authority

At the very least a Product Owner needs the authority to nominate the work the team are going to do for the next two weeks. They need the authority to choose items form a backlog and ask the team to do them. They need the authority not to have their decisions overridden on a regular basis. (OK, it happens occasionally.)

As a general rule the more authority the Product Owner has the more effective they are going to be in their role.

The organization may confer that authority but the team need to recognise and accept it too.

I’ve seen many Product Owners who while they have the authority to nominate work for a team don’t have the authority to throw things out of the backlog. When the only way for a story to leave the backlog is for it to be developed it is very expensive. This leads to constipated backlogs that are stuffed full of worthless rubbish and where one can’t see the wood for the trees.

If the Product Owner doesn’t have sufficient authority then either they need to borrow some or there is going to be trouble.

  1. 3. Legitimacy

Legitimacy is different from authority. Legitimacy is about being seen as the right person, the bonafide person to exercise authority and do the background work to find out what they need to find out in order to make those decisions.

Legitimacy means the Product Owner can go and meet customers if they want. And it means that they will get their expenses paid.

Legitimacy means that nobody else is trying to fill the Product Owner role or undermine them. In particular it means the team respect the Product Owner and trust them to make the right calls. Most of all they accept that once in a while – hopefully not too often – the Product Owner will have to say “I accept technologically X is the right thing but commercially it must be Y; full ahead and damn the torpedoes.”

It can be hard for a Product Owner to fill their role if the team believe a senior developer – or anyone else – should be managing the backlog and prioritising work to do.

  1. 4. Time

Finally, and probably the most difficult… Product Owners need time to do their work.

They need time to meet customers and reflect on those encounters.

They need time to work-the-backlog, value stories, weed out expired or valueless stories, think about the product vision, talk to stakeholders and more senior people, and then ponder what happens next.

Time to evaluate what has been delivered and see if it is delivering the expected value. Time to understand whether that which has been delivered is generating more or less value than expected. Time to feedback those findings into future work: to recalibrate expected values and priorities, generate more work or invalidate other work.

Product Owners need time to look at competitor products and consider alternatives – if only to steal ideas!

They need time to work with the technical team: have conversations about stories, expand on acceptance criteria, review work in progress, perhaps test completed features and socialise with the team.

They also need time to enhance their own skills and learn more about the domain.

And if they don’t have the time to do this?

Without time they will rush into planning meetings and say “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t looked at the backlog this week, just bear with me while I choose some stories…”

More often than not they will wing-it, they substitute opinion and guesswork instead of solid analysis, facts and data. They overlook competition and fail to listen to the team and other managers.

And O yes, they need time for their own lives and family.

I sometimes think that only Super Human’s need apply for a Product Owner role, or perhaps many Product Owners are set up to fail from day-1. Yet the role is so important.

I plan to explore this topic some more in the next few posts.

Books update: User Stories, Continuous Digital and Project Myopia

UserStoriesPrint-2017-10-27-17-34-1.jpg

Someone told me the other day “I can’t keep up with your books” – and you know what? I’m not surprised, it has been a busy couple of months for me on the books front but actually, there has been very little new writing – except with this blog.

First off, “Little Book of Requirements and User Stories” is now available in print.

This is a collection of pieces I wrote for Agile Connection a couple of years back which I compiled into an e-book. Sales of the e-book have been good, especially since I put it on Amazon and so, after a couple of request I’ve created a print version.

Right at the moment I’m amazed that Little Book is ranking as the 46th best seller in systems analysis and design which I think makes it a best seller!

The cheapest way to get the book is to buy thee-book on LeanPub. Amazon (all sites) have both print and ebook versions but they are more expensive. If you would like a copy for free please write me a review on Amazon UK and I’ll post you a copy – first six reviews only!

Next… Continuous Digital and Project Myopia….

ContDigital-2017-10-27-17-34-1.jpg ProjectMyopia-2017-10-27-17-34-1.jpg

Continuous Digital began life as #NoProjects, then Project Myopia, then became Continuous Digital. The name changes reflected the way my own thinking grew and changed. What began as a critique of the project model grew into an alternative model in its own right. In doing so it became something different, hence Continuous Digital.

But the more Continuous Digital stood alone the more the original chapters looked out of place. So I decided a few weeks ago to bundle them into their own book: Project Myopia.

I hope readers will find them complementary although I think they both stand alone. Both are only available as e-books on LeanPub, indeed there is an LeanPub bundle “Rethinking Projects” containing both. That said, right now Continuous Digital contains a coupon which allows readers to download Project Myopia for free. (It won’t be there for much longer.)

Splitting Continuous Digital in two has allowed me to race through my editing. There is still some work to do but content wise the book is pretty much done. It will remain a LeanPub only e-book for a little while longer and then…

Project Myopia would benefit from some more editing but I have no great plans to change it much. The changes I would make are all covered in Continuous Digital anyway.

Please, if you have any comments on any of these books, or suggestions to make them better let me know.

Read more? Subscribe to my newsletter – free updates on blog post, insights, events and offers.

Books update: User Stories, Continuous Digital and Project Myopia

UserStoriesPrint-2017-10-27-17-34.jpg

Someone told me the other day “I can’t keep up with your books” – and you know what? I’m not surprised, it has been a busy couple of months for me on the books front but actually, there has been very little new writing – except with this blog.

First off, “Little Book of Requirements and User Stories” is now available in print.

This is a collection of pieces I wrote for Agile Connection a couple of years back which I compiled into an e-book. Sales of the e-book have been good, especially since I put it on Amazon and so, after a couple of request I’ve created a print version.

Right at the moment I’m amazed that Little Book is ranking as the 46th best seller in systems analysis and design which I think makes it a best seller!

The cheapest way to get the book is to buy thee-book on LeanPub. Amazon (all sites) have both print and ebook versions but they are more expensive. If you would like a copy for free please write me a review on Amazon UK and I’ll post you a copy – first six reviews only!

Next… Continuous Digital and Project Myopia….

ContDigital-2017-10-27-17-34.jpg ProjectMyopia-2017-10-27-17-34.jpg

Continuous Digital began life as #NoProjects, then Project Myopia, then became Continuous Digital. The name changes reflected the way my own thinking grew and changed. What began as a critique of the project model grew into an alternative model in its own right. In doing so it became something different, hence Continuous Digital.

But the more Continuous Digital stood alone the more the original chapters looked out of place. So I decided a few weeks ago to bundle them into their own book: Project Myopia.

I hope readers will find them complementary although I think they both stand alone. Both are only available as e-books on LeanPub, indeed there is an LeanPub bundle “Rethinking Projects” containing both. That said, right now Continuous Digital contains a coupon which allows readers to download Project Myopia for free. (It won’t be there for much longer.)

Splitting Continuous Digital in two has allowed me to race through my editing. There is still some work to do but content wise the book is pretty much done. It will remain a LeanPub only e-book for a little while longer and then…

Project Myopia would benefit from some more editing but I have no great plans to change it much. The changes I would make are all covered in Continuous Digital anyway.

Please, if you have any comments on any of these books, or suggestions to make them better let me know.

Read more? Subscribe to my newsletter – free updates on blog post, insights, events and offers.

The Solution defines the Problem

Excel-2017-10-24-14-07.jpg

How many times have you encountered a user/customer/client who describes the thing they want in terms of Microsoft Excel? – “What I want is a macro in Excel to pick up all these data points and then…”

Many a Business Analyst has started from this point and worked back to discover what the clients real “problem” is. Quite possibly the client never considered themselves as having “a problem”. Quite possibly the “problem” would never have been spoken about it the client didn’t have an understanding of spreadsheet technology. And in the days before spreadsheets were invented the task may have been tiring, time consuming and prone to error but, thats just how it was.

Regardless of whether Excel is the solution they finally get, or not, it is only because they can imagine a solution that a problem can be defined. In fact, the Solution defines the Problem.

Excel is not the only example…

TubeEstimatedBill-2017-10-24-14-07.jpg

I was travelling on the London Underground the other day when this advert leapt out at me: “Estimated bills got you in a spin? Get accurate ones with a smart meter”. What?

Really, I mean: What?

I’ve been paying electricity, gas and other metered bills for over 20 years, not only have I never “got in a spin” about an estimated bill but I’ve never given it two thoughts. Neither can I ever recall anyone saying to me “Gee I hate estimated bills… they are so much hassle…”. OK, maybe some people have but so few that it hardly ranks as a world class problem.

Actually, now I think about it: I prefer estimated bills. It is hassle having a meter reader come to the door and having to show them the meters. And it is even more hassle reading my own meter, finding the box key, writing the reading down, trying to log into a website, doing “forgot my password” …

This advert, this whole product, is a great example of Solution Defines the Problem. Estimated bills are not a problem until you to have a solution.

Yes I know Solution defines Problem is hearsay to some. We are supposed to find the problem and work backwards from the problem to the solution, outside-in.

Yes I know that all you Business Analysts and Product Managers were trained – as I was myself – to look for the problem and then define a solution: a solution that might just happen to be technology based, and might just happen to be software.

And Yes I know to many of you the idea of a company creating “a problem” so they can then solve it is morally repugnant but… lets think about it for a minute.

What problem does the iPhone 8 solve? What was at the front of Apple’s hive-mind when they designed the iPhone 8?

440px-IPhone_8_vector-2017-10-24-14-07.png

And what problem does the iPhone 8 solve that the iPhone 7 didn’t solve? Or for that matter the iPhone 6? 5? 4?

(I mean “what customer problem”, one could argue the problem the iPhone 8 solves is Tim Cook’s need to have more sales revenue.)

Solving problems is not enough.

I’m not saying outside-in, problem first, innovation and development doesn’t work. Clearly such an approach has work in many cases. What I am saying is: it is not always appropriate; sometimes a more effective way of working is inside-out.

What can the technology do?
How can we make people’s lives better with this?

This approach too has a number of success stories. Rather than condemn it as “wrong” maybe we should be asking “When and where does it work?” and “Which approach is the most appropriate?”

When creating a new thing – be it software, hardware or services – our understanding of the problem evolves as our understanding of the possible solution, or solutions, evolve. One starts off thinking of a solution, or a problem, we seek to understand some more – maybe by building part of a solution or by talking to someone we think have the problem, we learn a little, maybe we continue in this mode or maybe we flip and work on the other side of the equation. And round we go again, iteration.

It is a learning cycle, the question is, what is the fastest way to learn?

I included the solution-problem hypothesis in my Agile Cambridge keynote last month. Afterwards I was e-mailed by someone whose email I’ve now lost (apologies!) and recommended a book: Overcrowded by Roberto Verganti.

Roberto Verganti, takes a similar but different approach to the same question. For him the key is: meaning. At first I wasn’t quite sure if “meaning” was the right word but as I’ve read more I think it is, albeit meaning in a fairly broad sense.

Verganti’s argument isn’t quite the same as mine but it is close enough, he is also arguing for starting with a solution and working backwards. For him the aim is to create new meaning, you might say that he identifies a generic problem “Humans needs more meaning in their world.”

Try the iPhone test in this context too: “What is the meaning of the iPhone 8?”

I’m going to be talking more about this in my keynote to TopConf in Tallin next month, in the meantime please let me know what you think. Madness?

Read more? Subscribe to my newsletter – free updates on blog post, insights, events and offers.

MVP is a marketing exercise not a technology exercise

MVP-2017-10-2-11-03.jpg
… Minimally Viable Product

Possibly the most fashionable and misused term the digital industry right now. The term seems to be used by one-side-or-other to criticise the other.

I recently heard another Agile Coach say: “If you just add a few more features you’ll have an MVP” – I wanted to scream “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” But I bit my tongue (who says I’m can’t do diplomacy?)

MVP often seems to be the modern way of saying “The system must do”, MVP has become the M in Moscow rules.

Part of the problem is that the term means different things to different people. Originally coined to describe an experiment (“what is the smallest thing we could build to learn something about the market?”) it is almost always used to describe a small product that could satisfy the customers needs. But when push comes to shove that small usually isn’t very small. When MVP is used to mean “cut everything to the bone” the person saying it still seems to leave a lot of fat on the bone.

I think non-technical people hear the term MVP and think “A product which doesn’t do all that gold plating software engineering fat that slows the team down.” Such people show how little they actually understand about the digital world.

MVPs should not about technology. An MVP is not about building things.

An MVP is a marketing exercise: can we build something customers want?

Can we build something people will pay money for?

Before you use the language MVP you should assume:

  1. The technology can do it
  2. Your team can build it

The question is: is this thing worth building?and before we waste money building something nobody will use, let alone pay for, what can we build to make sure we are right?

The next time people start sketching an MVP divide it in 10. Assume the value is 10% of the stated value. Assume you have 10% of the resources and 10% of the time to build it. Now rethink what you are asking for. What can you build with a tenth?

Anyway, the cat is out of the bag, as much as I wish I could erase the abbreviation and name from collective memory I can’t. But maybe I can change the debate by differentiating between several types of MVP, that is, several different ways the term MVP is used:

  • MVP-M: a marketing product, designed to test what customers want, and what they will pay for.
  • MVP-T: a technical product designed to see if something can be build technologically – historically the terms proof-of-concept and prototype have been used here
  • MVP-L: a list of MUST HAVE features that a product MUST HAVE
  • MVP-H: a hippo MVP, a special MVP-L, that is highest paid person’s opinion of the feature list, unfortunately you might find several different people believe they have the right to set the feature list
  • MVP-X: where X is a number (1,2, 3…), this derivative is used by teams who are releasing enhancements to their product and growing it. (In the pre-digital age we called this a version number.) Exactly what is minimal about it I’m not sure but if it helps then why not?

MVP-M is the original meaning while MVP-L and MVP-H are the most common types.

So next time someone says “MVP” just check, what do they mean?

Read more? Join my mailing list – free updates on blog post, insights, events and offers.

Definition of Ready considered harmful

Small-iStock-502805668-2017-09-6-12-58.jpg

Earlier this week I was with a team and discussion turned to “the definition of ready.” This little idea has been growing more and more common in the last couple of years and while I like the concept I don’t recommend it. Indeed I think it could well reduce Agility.

To cut to the chase: “Definition of ready” reduces agility because it breaks up process flow, assumes greater role specific responsibilities, introduces more wait states (delay) and potentially undermines business-value based prioritisation.

The original idea builds on “definition of done”. Both definitions are a semi-formal checklists agreed by the team which are applied to pieces of work (stories, tasks, whatever). Before any piece of work is considered “done” it should satisfy the definition of done. So the team member who has done a piece of work should be able to mentally tick each item on the checklist. Typically a definition of done might contain:

 

  • Story implemented
  • Story satisfies acceptance criteria
  • Story has been seen and approved by the product owner
  • Code is passing all unit and acceptance tests

Note I say “mentally” and I call these lists “semi formal” because if you start having a physical checklist for each item, physically ticking the boxes, perhaps actually signing them, and presumably filing the lists or having someone audit them then the process is going to get very expensive quickly.

So far so good? – Now why don’t I like definition of ready?

On the one hand definition of ready is a good idea: before work begins on any story some pre-work has been done on the story to ensure it is “ready for development” – yes, typically this is about getting stories ready for coding. Such a check-list might say:

 

  • Story is written in User Story format with a named role
  • Acceptance criteria have been agreed with product owner
  • Developer, Tester and Product owner have agreed story meaning

Now on the other hand… even doing these means some work has been done. Once upon a time the story was not ready, someone, or some people have worked on the story to make it ready. When did this happen? Getting this story ready has already detracted from doing other work – work which was a higher priority because it was scheduled earlier.

Again, when did this happen?

If the story became “ready” yesterday then no big deal. The chances are that little has changed.

But if it became ready last week are you sure?

And what if it became ready last month? Or six months ago?

The longer it has been ready the greater the chance that something has changed. If we don’t check and re-validate the “ready” state then there is a risk something will have changed and be done wrong. If we do validate then we may well be repeating work which has already been done.

In general, the later the story becomes “ready” the better. Not only does it reduce the chance that something will change between becoming “ready” and work starting but it also minimises the chance that the story won’t be scheduled at all and all the pre-work was wasted.

More problematic still: what happens when the business priority is for a story that is not ready?

Customer: Well Dev team story X is the highest priority for the next sprint
Scrum Master: Sorry customer, Story X does not meet the definition of ready. Please choose another story.
Customer: But all the other stories are worth less than X so I’d really like X done!

The team could continue to refuse X – and sound like an old style trade unionist in the process – or they could accept X , make it ready and do it.

Herein lies my rule of thumb:

 

If a story is prioritised and scheduled for work but is not considered “ready” then the first task is to make it ready.

Indeed this can be generalised:

 

Once a story is prioritised and work starts then whatever needs doing gets done.

This simplifies the work of those making the priority calls. They now just look at the priority (i.e. business value) or work items. They don’t need to consider whether something is ready or not.

It also eliminates the problem of: when.

Teams which practise “definition of ready” usually expect their product owner to make stories ready before the iteration planning meeting, and that creates the problems above. Moving “make ready” inside the iteration, perhaps as a “3 Amigos” sessions after the planning meeting, eliminates this problem.

And before anyone complains saying “How can I estimate something thing that is not prepared?” let me point out you can. You are just estimating something different:

 

  • When you estimate “ready” stories you are estimating the time it takes to move a well formed story from analysis-complete to coding-complete
  • When up estimate an “unready” story you are estimating the time it takes to move a poorly formed story from its current state to coding-complete

I would expect the estimates to be bigger – because there is more work – and I would expect the estimates to be subject to more variability – because the initial state of the story is more variable. But is still quite doable, it is an estimate, not a promise.

I can see why teams adopt definition of ready and I might even recommend it myself but I’d hope it was an temporary measure on the way to something better.

In teams with broken, role based process flows then a definition of done for each stage can make sense. The definition of done at the end of one activity is the definition of ready for the next. For teams adopting Kanban style processes I would recommend this approach as part of process/board set-up. But I also hope that over time the board columns can be collapsed down and definitions dropped.

Read more? Join my mailing list – free updates on blog post, insights, events and offers.