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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The Agile virus

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The thing we call Agile is a virus. It gets into organizations and disrupts the normal course of business. In the early days, say before 2010, the corporate anti-bodies could be counted on to root out and destroy the virus before too much damage was done.

But sometimes the anti-bodies didn’t work. As the old maxim says “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Sometimes agile made the organization stronger. Software development teams produced more stuff, they delivered on schedule, employees were happier, they had fewer bugs. In smaller, less established companies, the virus infected the company central nervous system, the operating system, and subverted it. Agile became natural.

Perhaps thats not so odd after all. Fighting infection is one of the ways bodies grow stronger. And some virus have positive effects – Friendly Viruses Protect Us Against Bacteria (Science Magazine),
‘Good viruses’ defend gut when bacteria are wiped out (New Scientist), 10 Viruses That Actually Help Humankind (ListVerse), and virus play a roll in evolution by removing the weaker of the species.

The problem is, once the virus is inside the organization/organism it wants to grow and expand. It you don’t kill it then it will infect more and more of the body. Hence, software teams that contracted the agile virus and found it beneficial were allowed to survive but at the same time the virus spread downstream to the requirements process. Business Analysts and Product Managers had to become agile too.

Once you are infected you start to see the world through infected eyes. Over time the project model looked increasingly counter productive. Growth of the agile virus lead to the #NoProjects movement as the virus started to change management models.

Similar things are happening in the accounting and budgeting field. As the agile virus takes hold, and especially once the #NoProjects mutation kicks in, the annual budget process looks crazy. Agile creates a force for more change, agile demands Beyond Budgetting. Sure you can do agile in a traditional budget environment but the more you do the more contradictions you see and the more problems you encounter.

Then there is “human resources” – or to give it a more humane name personnel. Traditional staff recruitment, line management, individual bonuses and retention polices start to look wrong when you are infected by agile. Forces grow to change things, the more the organization resists the virus the more those infected by the virus grow discontent and the more unbalanced things become.

It carries on. The more successful agile is the greater the forces pressing for more change.

While companies don’t recognise these forces they grow. Hierarchical organizations and cultures (like banks) have this really bad. At the highest level they have come to recognise the advantages of the agile virus but to embrace it entirely is to destroy the essence of the organization.

Countless companies try to contain the agile virus but to do so they need to exert more and more energy. Really they need to kill it or embrace it and accept the mutation that is the virus.

Ultimately it all comes down to forces. The forces of status quo and traditional working (Theory X) on one side against the forces of twenty-first century digital enabled millennial workforce (Theory Y) on the other. Victory for the virus is inevitable but that does not mean every organization will be victorious or even survive. Those who can harness the virus fastest stand to gain the most.

The virus has been released, putting the genie back in the bottle is going to be hard – although the paradox of digital technology is that while the digital elite stand to gain the digital underclass (think Amazon warehouse workers) stand to lose.

All companies need to try to embrace the virus, to not do so would be to condemn oneself. But not all will succeed, in fact most will fail trying. Their failures will allow space for new comers to succeed, that is the beauty of capitalism. Unfortunately that space might be also be grabbed by the winners, the companies that have let the virus take over the organization.


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Agile is a Crunchy Nut Frog (and some dirty secrets)

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Remember the Monty Python Crunchy Nut Frog sketch? – especially the final section..

Officer: Well why don’t you move into more conventional areas of confectionery, … I mean look at this one, ‘cockroach cluster’, ‘anthrax ripple’. What’s this one, ‘spring surprise’?

Shop keeper: Ah – now, that’s our speciality – covered with darkest creamy chocolate. When you pop it in your mouth steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through-both cheeks.

That like Agile to me. In AgileLand everything is sweetness and light. Agile has all the answers. Everything works. Agile is utopia.

I’ve taught enough Agile Introduction courses to know this is so – and pushed ti too. There is no scenario I can’t fix in the classroom with the application of the right Agile principles, tool or mindset. And if I can’t… well in that case, Agile is helping you see the problem more clearly and you have to find your own solution.

Honestly, part of the appeal of Agile is that: Agile is a damn good story. Agile paints the picture of a better world, and so it should. Particularly when delivering an Agile training course I see my role as two fold:

  1. In-part enough information so that teams can actually try Agile
  2. Energise people to want to try it this way

Except, there are some dirty little secrets in the Agile world which do’t fit with this picture.

First up is Micromanagement (#1).

As I said in Devs Hate Agile, the Agile toolkit can be used for good or evil. If someone wants to be a micro-manager par-excellence then Agile – and particularly Scrum – make a great toolkit for micro-management too.

The intention behind the Agile/Scrum approach is to give those who do the work the tools and approaches to take control of their own work. When they do so then great things happen – the workers control the means of production! However those same tools can be used by very effectively by those who would control the workers.

What micromanager would not want every team member standing up to justify themselves at 9am each morning?
Surely a micromanager would want working software at every opportunity? – and if you fail to deliver working software then…

In part this is because Agile is a great tool for apportioning blame (#2). When builds fail you know who did the last check-in. when tests fail you know who broke it, when cards don’t move on a board, sorry I mean Jira, then the powerful can hone in on those not pulling their weight.

Kanban is even better than Scrum here. I remember one Project Manager who used the Kanban board (26 columns!) we constructed to demonstrate why everybody apart from him was slowing work down. Try as I might I couldn’t get him to see each of problem to be worked on. To be fair to him, he was the product of a system where almost every step was undertaken by a sub-contractor, he had no power to change or reward sub-contractors, only to whip them.

Both these points illustrate the second dirty little secret: you don’t need to do everything (#3).

Simply holding stand-up meetings and end-of-iteration activities is a massive improvement for some teams.

Developers who adopt Test Driven Development will produce fewer bugs, waste less time in the debugger, and the testers who come after them will spend less time reporting bugs. Thus fewer bugs will need fixing and schedules will improve.

A Kanban board with WIP limits will improve workflow even if you do nothing else.

Yes, if you do every part of Scrum things will get a lot better.

And if you do every part of XP the total benefit will be better than the sum of the parts.

Part of the genius of Agile is that it can be implemented piecemeal. But that also means organizations and teams can stop. I’ve seen this a number of time: I introduce a bit of Agile, the immediate pain is relieved and the company looses the will to go further and improve more.

After all, who am I but an external consultant to tell them they could do better?

Once the pain if gone then the need to change goes too.

Now some dirty little secrets are being exposed. Most readers will know I have been active in exposing the dirty secret of Agile Project Management: the idea that Agile and the project model (aka project management) can work together.

Sure they can work together but… why? what is the point? Why go to the trouble of integrating Agile and Project Management?

Once you start working Agile the project model looks absurd. Hence #NoProjects – and why so many people have arrived at the same conclusion about projects independently.

In fact, it goes further than that. Companies that introduce full blown Scrum – including self-organizing teams – risk destroying themselves. In traditional, top-down, hierarchical companies Agile and self-organizing teams must be contained otherwise it will destroy the whole hierarchy. That is why banks struggle with Agile, the chocolate on the outside is really nice but sooner or later what they are eating runs up against what they are.

Finally, you might notice that in this post – and indeed in many of my other post – I don’t agree with other Agile advocates. Go and read Jeff Sutherland (I don’t agree over self-organization), Mike Cohn (I don’t agree over stories and points), Keith Richards (not the rolling stone, the APM man, I don’t agree over projects), Jim Coplien (he doesn’t agree over TDD), Joanna Rothman (we don’t agree on stories), Dan North (we don’t agree on teams) and just about anyone else and you’ll find I don’t agree 100% with anyone.

True, I make a point of being a contrarian – go read my old Heresy: My warped, crazy, wrong version of Agile.

But the thing is: none of these people agree with each other.

Everyone in the Agile communities interprets it slightly differently.

The final dirty secret of Agile is: the experts don’t agree – there is no one true way (#5).

I feel sorry for new comers to Agile who expect to read the one-true-way but I’m also sure none of us “gurus” would want to any other way because we want variety and experimentation. And perhaps that is why one-size-fits all Agile scaling is always doomed.

Frog image credit: Argentine Horned Frog by Grosscha on WikiMediaCommons under CCL ASA 4.0 license


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