Agile · Communication · Decision making · Design · Development Effort · Effectiveness · Leadership · Product management · Scrum

Don’t drop the ball

In the midst of a very busy time I’m reminded of some of the core responsibilities of Product Owners at my firm (where the role straddles some typical duties of a product manager and a scrum master). Here are quick notes on what is surfacing:

  1. Know the details. As a product owner it is important to know the specifics about features being developed, time lines for development, and what jobs potential clients are trying to accomplish when using the product you are working with. There are differences of opinion on how conversant a product owner needs to be with all of the minutia versus how much she can rely on subject matter experts to fill in the technology or business specifics, but at the very least an effective product owner must be clear about what she knows and when to draw on other people’s knowledge, and good product owners are never ‘knowledge bottle-necks’ for the team. Because the product owner is regularly called upon to communicate with developers, testers, product support, sales and marketing folks, and clients she has to have the relevant details at her fingertips so that she can be recognized and trusted as a product leader.
  2. Focus on the big picture. At the same time, effective product owners never lose sight of the big picture. It can be easy to get lost in the details or to focus so much on the specifics of an individual feature that the overall product vision gets blurred. A strong product product owner will regularly refocus the team on broader vision, product direction, and reaching the market; such wider perspective is vital when making trade-offs or prioritizing what to work on next. It also allows the product owner to see connections among different potential features, pressing problems to be solved, or half-articulated market needs. In a waterfall development methodology it was considered fine for the project manager to simply implement the directions given by someone else; for Agile development to be its most effective a product owner has to keep the big picture in mind even when diving into details.
  3. Present at the right level. Balancing a thorough grasp of the relevant details with a compelling overview of the big picture allows a good product owner to communicate with other people and teams at the right level. Sometimes a deep dive into details is exactly what a situation calls for; in other circumstances a high level summary of key points is much better at providing comfort and direction. Product owners have to know what level of information is called for when talking with senior executives, software testers, marketing professionals, and potential clients – as well as knowing what kinds of questions to ask and how to listen well to the answers.
  4. Work closely with your development team. I could write at greater length about being available, approachable, knowledgeable, and able to teach – all key characteristics of a product owner who works well with her development team; but the right personality and skill set makes all the difference when trying to lead a product development team. Effective product owners cannot be aloof from the team, stopping by occasionally to critique what’s being done or staying so busy with other tasks that developers are left without someone to help them understand the business context for product decisions.  Whether sitting with the team or simply spending lots of time together, the product owner has to make cultivating a close working relationship with the coders and testers a high priority. Effective Agile development involves deep collaboration across the discovery, design, and development phases and nothing enhances that more than close connections across the team.

I’ve written about these topics before and I remain convinced that learning how to execute on these core responsibilities consistently well makes a person an excellent product owner.  Unfortunately all four of these skills are tough to teach; someone with nascent abilities in these areas can be coached into growing effectiveness but it can be very difficult to teach someone how to balance these different skills. There’s certainly more to it, and of course context always matters, but honing these abilities will help anyone be more effective as a product owner.  It won’t solve every problem because in truth it’s not that simple.

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