As a consultant who has worked in the IT field in a myriad of roles and companies during my career, I am repeatedly surprised at how few companies today appreciate the role of the product owner in the delivery.
Our software world continues to evolve, where producer and consumer are increasingly united. In the 1970s, software was primarily intended for scientists, governments, universities, and large corporations using mainframes VAX, UNISYS, IBM and more. During this period and throughout the 1990s, projects dominated software development with the Project Management Institute as the dominant organization for IT delivery. From the late 1990s to the 2000s, iterative programming disciplines such as extreme programming, Scrum, and Kanban developed into our current Agile delivery framework. In the 2010s, the process expanded further to focus on creating a better product.
Today we now see in software development a new turn towards the end user as king. However, who interprets and prioritizes the demands, wants and desires of end users? The owner of the product. Not only that, but innovation only comes from the producer and it is through the owner of the product. Users often know what they want best, but they don’t know what looks best. The owner of the product directs that direction for “what is best”. Therefore, the owner of the product is really king in software development today.
You can build with great, high performing teams delivering quality software at high speed, but the result can be completely wrong due to the lack of a knowledgeable product owner. Yes, Agile teams can create great software with quality and speed, but it’s worthless if no one wants to use it – a very costly mistake. As Scott Hanselman described in his blog, software delivery must be both efficient and effective.
So how do you determine the characteristics of a good product owner?
The best product owner I have had the privilege of working with was Dr. Kevin McEnery of MD Anderson. What made Dr. McEnery such an amazing product owner? He used the software to understand user needs, he was a visionary with clear and decisive direction and best of all, he was a .NET developer, so he understood the efforts and needs of IT but not micromanaged them .
How does this fit with the role of product owner?
Here are the main qualities of a Product Owner to achieve the best possible software delivery:
1. Ability and commitment
The owner of the product is fully committed and has the authority, dedication and influence to move the delivery of the product forward.
Demonstrates an intimate understanding of the user as the ‘voice of the customer’, validating all product development assumptions with the end user in mind.
Owns and refines product vision multiple times throughout the product development cycle, effectively communicating with stakeholders for buy-in and support.
4. Navigator / Succeed / Entrepreneur
Successfully guides the product development journey to align with end user needs with a focus on job completion and adapts to expected changes upon delivery. Remember that software is worthless until it is made available to end users. Until then, it only has the potential to be valuable.
5. Team player / Communicator / Negotiator
The product owner has excellent soft skills to influence team members, stakeholders and end users in the effective and efficient direction of product development.
Finding an individual mastering all of these skills is rare and very valuable. What if you have an insufficient Product Owner in a few, if not many, areas? Yes, sometimes reality sets in with delivery schedules, politics, corporate culture, etc. and you have to live with the cards that are dealt to you.
Recommendations include the following:
Train the Product Owner
There are generally three types of product owners: the fearless, the reckless, and the fearless. There are many effective Product Owners out there, and you can make your POs learn from those who are proficient in the role.
Provide assistance to the product owner
Include business analysts, subject matter experts (SMEs) and other key support roles. The role of product owner is almost impossible to deliver solo. Support the product owner until they have the right foundation for success.
Extend the role of Product Owner to multiple people
Many products require more than one purchase order. Consider expanding the role to multiple people for greater efficiency.
Replace product owner
Sometimes people don’t fit the role. It is a last resort.
In order for your business to thrive and succeed beyond your competition, don’t underestimate the power of your product owners. These POs are kings and queens, so do your utmost to find, prepare, and maintain committed POs as your highest priority for software delivery. If you don’t, expect your competition to get ahead of you with innovative new products on offer for less than you! Do not fall into this trap!
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