We’ve come at last to number ten on my top ten list of the core responsibilities of effective product owners in an Agile software development environment. In this set of posts I have talked about the image of product owners as bridges connecting the intelligence of the market with the resources of technology to create products that will thrill clients. Now I will wrap up this blog arc with my thoughts on the final core responsibility of product owners: knowing the product intimately.
The best product owners – in fact, the best people to have in any roles on the product development team – are passionate about their work. As I said when sharing my thoughts about the biography of Steve Jobs that I read recently, passion about products distinguishes the best product owners from those simply doing a job. Whether it is passion about the problem being solved or the people being served, effective product owners bring passion to their work. If you’re involved developing products and you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, it may be worth looking for something new to do if you can afford to.
As a side note, I hope you are fueled by passion in at least some part of your life. Work, friendships, hobbies, family – if you haven’t yet found something that engages your passions then keep looking.
Why does passion matter? Because it motivates the product owner to do her best work, which in turn stirs the passions of the others on the product team. Good engineers and testers are passionate about creating great code with thorough test coverage; good sales folks are passionate about fostering relationships with clients and prospects; and good marketers are passionate about honing the message around the product’s value proposition. Product owners (and often product managers in an overlapping way) are passionate about the same things that clients are passionate about: getting pressing problems solved in ways that make their lives and businesses better. Product owner passion spurs corresponding passion from the whole team as together they work toward solutions to these market problems.
One key result of this passion will be an interest in knowing the product intimately. Good product owners know the history of their product: how it got the way it is, what key decisions were made along the path of product development, who has been using the product, and what these users think about it. Strong product owners also know the current state of their product: what works well and what needs to be worked around, what the current gaps are and what is being worked on. Finally, effective product owners know where the product is heading – what’s on the product roadmap for the next few sprints and the next few quarters, what has been promised to clients and prospects, and what the market is hungry for as the product keeps evolving.
This deep knowledge is important because of the particular role that the product owner plays on the wider product team. Strong product owners are not simply a repository of information to be dispensed at the appropriate inquiry; nor are they unique ’know-it-alls’ informing a team of people with only a silo-based knowledge of one small domain. Clearly every member of the team brings specialized knowledge to the table as the whole group works together. Market knowledge, technical knowledge, sales knowledge, design knowledge, and business knowledge all form an interconnected part of what a great product team needs to understand. The product owner contribution to this knowledge reservoir concerns the intersection of the client problem with the product solution. As each member of the team applies knowledge and passion from her own perspective, the product owner keeps her focus on knowing how the product has been, is being, and will be used to solve pressing client problems.
Having someone on the product team passionate about applying the full knowledge of the team to solving clearly identified client problems strengthens the product development capabilities of the organization. Infectious passion energizes, motivates, and inspires all team members to pursue innovative and proactive solutions persistently. It also differentiates truly great product teams from those simply doing a job, leading to better products and deeper engagement with a client base that experiences the benefits of this well-informed passion. Without a knowledgeable and passionate product owner, a software company might be able to make an adequate system to track the complexities of, for example, derivative hedge accounting – assuming that the team can find someone with the requisite technical understanding. However, a truly effective product owner can inject the enthusiasm into the development team that transforms the dry details of such a complicated subject (apologies to those with inherent love for hedge accounting) into a passionate quest to capture the nuances in an intuitive product that will thrill the clients who use it. Moving from mere adequacy to excellence in any complicated area calls for a team motivated by the kind of well-informed passion that a strong product owner provides.
The intimate product knowledge and the passion for solving client problems that effective product owners bring to the product development team provide perspective on decision making across the team. Good product owners are not ‘knowledge bottlenecks’; instead they share what they know and spread the wealth of information. They share this knowledge with product managers as together they plan for the future of the product. Their passion motivates them to tell good user stories and tend the product backlog, just as their deep knowledge helps them supply or seek out relevant subject matter expertise. This informed passion helps product owners listen well and talk with clarity to testers, coders, and designers. And their intimate product knowledge helps effective product owners talk intelligently about potential tradeoffs while protecting the team from unhelpful distractions. As you can see (if you’ve been following along the past few weeks) the combination of passion for solving problems and intimate knowledge of the product is foundational to my ‘top ten’ list of core product owner responsibilities. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but as you also no doubt know that’s because in truth it’s not that simple.