Agile · Communication · Product management

Be available

If you read books, websites, or tweets about product development (hopefully you’re at least reading my tweets from @asbiv and you must be reading this blog or you wouldn’t be reading these words now) then you’ve probably heard a lot about the roles of product managers and product owners.  Much of the literature out there stresses the value of having the same person carry both of these responsibilities for truly successful product development.  In my current firm we are working through our own understanding of what these roles involve and whether or not they can be separated without undercutting the effectiveness of both.  In this blog I have been trying to outline ways that these tasks can be done by different people as long as the two work very closely together.  In this posting I want to talk about one striking difference in the main focus of these two roles – which happens to be number seven on my top ten list of responsibilities for product owners.

The folks from Pragmatic Marketing (pragmaticmarketing.com) stress a key concept about product management: nothing important happens in the office.  From their perspective, the number one responsibility of effective product managers is gathering and synthesizing market intelligence – and this requires that the product manager spend time interacting with clients and prospects, observing how people use products in their regular lives, and understanding how competitors and partners are developing similar products.  Much of this work cannot be done from a desk, and so they emphasize the need for regular ‘NIHITO’ (nothing important happens in the office) visits to foster this face-to-face interaction and observation.

As opposed to this external focus, one of the most important things that a good product owner can do (#7 on my top 10 list) is be available to the development team.  Most of the important work of the product owner happens in the office, where she can be available to listen to the progress and roadblocks that the development team encounters during a sprint, to answer questions and discuss issues with both the developers and the product manager, and to help with testing proposed solutions.  Development in an Agile environment involves daily iterations of coding and testing and frequent (often daily) interactions with the user-interface or user-experience designer, and an engaged product owner will be available for conversations and demonstrations across the development team throughout the sprint.

In a traditional waterfall development methodology, the business analyst hands fully-formed business requirements documents to the developer and may not be needed again for weeks or months until the project moves to the user acceptance testing phase.  In this scenario a business analyst might be involved in several concurrent projects at different stages of development, or she might have responsibilities in other areas such as product support or marketing.  But in an Agile environment an absent or otherwise occupied product owner becomes a bottleneck to the daily development cycle, as coders, testers, or designers wait for the product owner to become available.

Connected with the importance of being available is the need to listen well.  The product owner must listen to the development team as they work through each sprint cycle, to the project manager as she wrestles with strategic issues, to clients and prospects as they interact with the product, and to folks on other project teams who are working on related products or features.  Having listened to all of this diverse input, the product owner then seeks to synthesize and validate what she thinks she is hearing from these sources, bringing relevant information and insights back to the development team to stimulate creative thinking.

The importance of listening and being available relates to the concept popularized at Hewlett-Packard and by Tom Peters known as ‘management by wandering around’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Management_by_wandering_around).  This is product ownership by walking around and being available both to ask and to answer questions.  This makes the role of product owner somewhat unstructured and hard to pin down; good product owners spend most of their time away from their own desks interacting with and listening to others.  To shift a bit the Pragmatic Marketing dictum as it applies to product owners rather than product managers: nothing important happens at your desk (NIHAYD).

Being an effective product owner really is a full-time role; the need to be available as the development team has issues to discuss or early versions to demonstrate cannot be squeezed into the margins of another job.  ‘Wandering around’ with the development team, the product manager, and with clients and prospects allows an attuned product owner to listen to market needs and development issues and to respond appropriately.  Simply being there (http://bit.ly/6P0uwU) – available and listening – is a crucial part of being a strong product owner.  Of course, in truth it’s not that simple.

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