by Michael Dougherty

The product owner is king

Jun 27, 2017
Enterprise ApplicationsIT LeadershipTechnology Industry

“What if we found ourselves building something that nobody wanted? In that case what did it matter if we did it on time and on budget?” —Eric Ries

As a consultant that has been working in the Information Technology field in a myriad of roles and businesses in my career, I am repeatedly surprised how little many enterprises value the role of the product owner in delivery today.

Our software world continues to evolve, where the producer and consumer are becoming more and more united. In the 1970’s software was essentially for scientists, government, universities and major businesses using VAX, UNISYS, IBM mainframes and more. During this time and through the 1990s, projects ruled software development with the Project Management Institute as the dominant organization for IT delivery. From late 1990s through the 2000s, iterative programming disciplines such as Extreme Programming, Scrum and Kanban expanded in our current Agile delivery framework. In the 2010s, process expanded more to focus on building a better product.

Today, now we see in software development a further shift towards the end user as king. However, who interprets and prioritizes the end user requests, wishes and desires? The product owner. Not only that, but innovation only comes from the producer and that is through the product owner. Users often know best what they want, but they do not know what better looks like. The product owner drives that direction for “what is better.” Hence, the product owner is truly king in today’s software development.

You can build with excellent, high performance teams delivering quality software at high velocity, but the output could be completely wrong due to the lack of a competent product owner. Yes, Agile teams can build great software with quality and speed, but it has no value if no one would want to use – a very expensive mistake. As Scott Hanselman describes in his blog, software delivery must be both efficient and effective.

So how do you determine the characteristics of a great product owner?

The best product owner I had the sincere privilege to work with was Dr. Kevin McEnery at MD Anderson. What made Dr. McEnery an amazing product owner? He used the software so he understood the user needs, he was a visionary with clear, decisive direction and best of all, he was a .NET developer so understood the effort and needs of IT but without micromanaging them.

How does that map to the product owner role?

Here are the top qualities of a product owner to reach the best possible software delivery:

1. Empowered and Committed

The product owner is fully engaged and has the authority, dedication and influence to drive the product delivery forward.

2. Qualified

Demonstrates an intimate understanding of the user as the “voice of the customer,” validating any product development assumptions with the end user in mind.

3. Visionary

Owns and refines the product vision repeatedly throughout the product development life cycle, communicating effectively to stakeholders for their buy-in and support.

4. Navigator / Achiever / Entrepreneur

Successfully guides the product development journey to align with end user needs with the focus on completing work and adjusts with expected changes during delivery. Remember, software is worthless until released to end users. Until then, it only has the potential of being valuable.

5. Team Player / Communicator / Negotiator

The product owner has excellent soft skills to influence team members, stakeholders and end users in effectively and efficiently leading product development.

Finding an individual with a mastery of all these skills is rare and highly valuable. What if you have a product owner that is insufficient in a few or even many areas? Yes, sometimes reality sets in with delivery schedules, politics, company culture, etc. and you have to live with the cards you are dealt.

Recommendations include the following:

Train the product owner

There are typically three types of product owners – the fearless, the reckless and the feckless. There are plenty of effective product owners and you can have your POs learn from those that have mastered the role.

Provide the product owner help

Include Business Analysts, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and other key supporting roles. The product owner role is near impossible delivering solo. Support the product owner until they have the right foundation to be successful.

Expand the product owner role to multiple people

Many Products require more than one PO. Consider scaling the role to multiple people for higher effectiveness.

Replace the product owner

Sometimes, people are not matching the role. This is a last resort.

For your enterprise to thrive and achieve success beyond your competition, do not underestimate the power of your product owners. These POs are kings and queens so do all you can to find, groom and maintain committed POs as your highest priority for software delivery. If you do not, expect your competition to race ahead of you with innovative new products offered cheaper than you! Do not fall into that trap!