Matthijs Kouw (Business Consultant & Agile Coach at SQS Netherlands)
Farid Nat (Business Consultant & Agile Coach at SQS Netherlands)
Kaan Bulakeri (Practice Leader Business Agility at SQS Netherlands)
Introduction: Agile in theory and in reality
In Agile frameworks, the Product Owner is the person responsible for maximizing value, for example through prioritization of development work, engaging stakeholders, and learning from the market and customers. Ideally, Product Owners act as entrepreneurs within their organization and have the mandate to make tough decisions. However, the reality of Agile practices shows that organizations can obstruct their Product Owners when it comes to acting in such an entrepreneurial manner.
Dealing with organizational contexts is crucial in making the most of the Product Owner role and of prime importance in facilitating a successful journey towards agility. At SQS, we help organizations to see what role their Product Owners currently have and assist them in solving impediments that prevent Product Owners from having maximum impact. In addition, our specially trained Business Consultants can also be hired as Product Owners and Agile Coaches for our clients.
In our services related to Product Ownership, we draw upon our experience in dealing with scenarios impeding Product Owners from maximizing value, and thereby help to ensure our clients successfully adopt an agile mindset. Before discussing scenarios impeding Product Ownership and offering remedies in the form of best practices, we first describe the role of the Product Owner in more detail.
What’s a Product Owner?
Product Owners are product value maximisers that operate on the interface between ‘business’ and ‘IT’. Drawing on their own business knowledge or perhaps that of others, Product Owners formulate a crystal-clear vision that guides product development, involve key stakeholders, make use of the possibilities afforded by new technologies, and develop features to target new audiences.
Product Ownership should be performed by a single person. No one else can tell development teams what they need to do, though development teams decide themselves how they do their work. Having one Product Owner as the single point of authority (SPoA) regarding value maximization optimizes transparency and eliminates wasteful procedures and superfluous meetings between departments. In sum, being a Product Owner is no small feat and involves the consolidation of technologies, opportunities, and risks, as well as balancing the development of new features against dealing with continuous quality improvement and technical debt to keep maintenance costs in check.
Product Owners mature from a more receiving role to an initiating role (see Ron Eringa’s blog post ‘Evolution of the Product Owner’). Receiving Product Owners act as relays between business and IT. They can be someone with analytical skills who is able to write clear requirements for development teams. An initiating Product Owner acts more independently, ideally as a ‘mini-CEO’ and full-fledged entrepreneur, proactively pursuing new markets and possibilities afforded by new technologies, or testing the viability of new products through the release of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). An initiating and entrepreneurial Product Owner acts swiftly and independently, taking full responsibility for features developed, budget, release management, marketing, monitoring competition, stakeholder management, and legal aspects of his/her product. Organizations benefit in terms of agility: they can quickly respond to and learn from increasingly volatile markets, allowing them to succeed in the face of complexity and uncertainty.
Product Owner scenarios
We typically encounter the following five scenarios that impede the entrepreneurship of the Product Owner. These scenarios may (partially) overlap.
1. Death by hierarchy
The organization features strict separations of departments. ‘Business’ and ‘IT’ fail to communicate and collaborate efficiently. A transition to a new business model and/or Agile framework may have been enforced by decree, sometimes to the chagrin of everyone involved. Rather than being single points of authority, Product Owners run the risk of being go-betweens: they’re bound by procedural and administrative chains, forming yet another layer in the communication between various employees and departments.
In such cases, it’s advisable to facilitate and enhance communication among employees in ways that cross responsibilities and forms of expertise. Product Owners need to acquire the mandate to act more independently by dealing with organizational impediments. In collaboration with a dedicated Scrum Master, an entrepreneurial Product Owner may tackle death by hierarchy by making changes on a small level, thereby acquiring authority to make decisions and eventually earn more widespread appreciation for Agile ways of working. Usually, the best way for an organization to become Agile is to practice it.
An organization struggles to become successful. Revenue may be low and competitors are on the rise. There are endless discussions about what to do next, yet those involved never seem to agree. A trench war within the organization seems imminent, causing different camps to pursue their respective agendas. Resources that should be combined for maximum effect are fragmented, compromising the organization’s ability to make an impact.
Entrepreneurial Product Owners can optimize the process of learning from the market and potential customers, for example by developing an MVP that will solicit feedback from target audiences. The MVP allows feedback from the market to be incorporated into product development, with the Product Owner acting as a key ambassador for stakeholder involvement and de facto facilitator of learning. In addition, entrepreneurial Product Owners can consolidate different points of view through consensus building. The reception of the MVP and the process of creating consensus may be painful.
3. Business model paralysis
An organization may be learning from the market and internal discussions, yet fails to use these interests to its advantage, e.g. by seriously reconsidering their business model and pivoting towards a new approach. Vested interests, long-term contracts, or a more general fear of change may prevent any serious change to the erstwhile successful business model. However, upon closer look, the foundations of this business model appear to be slowly crumbling.
Product Owners should be able to have a disruptive impact by testing assumptions, pointing out blind spots in the organization’s activities, and questioning the value of work produced by teams within the organization. Breaking through this organizational stasis requires a Product Owner working with different stakeholders, both internally and externally, and someone willing to verify and calibrate business models through market research, the release of an MVP, stakeholder consultation and management, etc.
4. Wet behind the ears
The organization might be relatively new to Agile frameworks and may have yet to persuade every employee in the organization that agility is important. As a result, some employees may see Agile as an IT-related matter that primarily concerns frequent releases and flexibility so that customers are being kept satisfied. It may seem that agility doesn’t affect everyone, and most departments can safely stay on the beaten path and continue according to the old ways.
Agile concerns the entire organization and never a singled-out department like ‘IT’. Product Owners should overcome boundaries between departments and domains of expertise to truly intertwine business with IT. Strategically aligning project and program management with Agile’s product-oriented mindset can ensure involvement of project, product, and program managers, who may feel left out due to the transition towards agility. Entrepreneurial Product Owners leverage existing activities and roles while ensuring alignment between business activities. Receiving Product Owners can impede the process of integration and collaboration due to being yet another link in an already complex chain.
5. Greed is good
Product Owners may be ruthless in pursuing their own personal interests and may operate under the adage “greed is good”, as Gordon Gekko’s famous signature line from the 1987 movie ‘Wall Street’ goes. Thus, the organization is put in a vulnerable position by the Product Owner, who may damage the creation of value due to the pursue of exclusively personal interests. Even the transition towards agility within the organization can be negatively affected.
Truly being an entrepreneur means responding to the outside by being open to it. Pursuing personal interests that aren’t aligned with the organization’s interest is more like pillaging. The ruthless Product Owner is likely to surface in scenarios described earlier, e.g. when hierarchies, inability to learn and change, and immature implementations of Agile frameworks are abused. Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are of prime importance in preventing this final scenario, since they help to ensure the organization’s journey to agility is successful.
Conclusion: best practices
Embarking on the journey towards increased agility can be difficult. We advise the following best practices regarding Product Ownership to help organizations become responsive and prosperous:
- Avoid miscasting: if transitions to Agile frameworks aren’t carried out with care, those fulfilling a new role (such as the role of the Product Owner) may not have the professional and personal traits required;
- Hire an external Product Owner: organizations that have the characteristics of scenarios 1 (‘Death by hierarchy’) and 4 (‘Wet behind the ears’) can benefit from an external Product Owner. He/she can help to facilitate a transition to agility by functioning as a relatively independent arbiter to build consensus and coaching other Product Owners within the organization. Spending attention to knowledge transfer is crucial in ensuring valuable knowledge isn’t lost when the external Product Owner leaves the organization;
- Form a crystal-clear product vision and be willing to rigorously test its viability, for example by means of an MVP;
- Form interdisciplinary, flexible, creative, and high-performing teams who can make a difference. Creating such teams can benefit greatly from a dedicated Scrum Master;
- Find out what stakeholders have the mandate to make decisions and involve them using techniques that foster dialogue. Thus, the sphere of influence of the Product Owner expands. Always make sure the Product Owner remains the single point of authority (SPoA) to avoid dead weight in the form of wasteful procedures, committees, etc.;
- Co-create product backlog items and sprint goals using input from all layers in the organization. Make use of inclusive techniques like User Story Mapping, Impact Mapping, and Specification by Example;
- Enable and sustain collaboration between Scrum Teams and internal/external stakeholders;
- Fail again, fail better: accept the fact that releasing early and often is the gateway to success, even though this may at times be painful.
These best practices can be tailored to optimally fit the particular needs of our clients.
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