Master these – and you will be winning.
At ADAPTOVATE we are often asked what it takes to be a successful Product Owner. (Or PO as it will be referred to from here on).
Firstly a reminder of what a PO is. As our partners at Atlassian say “Product owners are the visionaries for the product. They work with customers, stakeholders, and others to build a roadmap for their product, and they also build out a which is is the next level of detail from the roadmap.”
A successful PO must understand the business, understand the customer, work well within the organization and beyond and support their teams. In our experience, what separates the extraordinarily successful PO is that they are aware of their role as well as the roles of people around them. They proactively manage their environment to guide good decision making.
If there is something they can do to influence the outcome of a given situation, they don’t sit around waiting for things to happen.
The key is Balance.
That is, a successful PO needs to balance a few roles well.
We’ve broken it down into four elements that the “perfect” PO needs to get right.
1. THE ART OF COMMUNICATION, IN THE BUSINESS, WITHIN THE TEAM
POs are effective communicators up, down and across the organization.
The PO work closely with sponsors and key stakeholders. – Good POs mastered the art of stakeholder management and can instantly understand the power and interest they have in the work of the team.
It allows the POs to use the right strategy to manage the expectations and information needs within the organization.
Supporting the teams, by working with the teams, not delegating work to them.
Good POs do not command and control but take time to understand strengths and weaknesses of the team. Then help them reach new levels of high-performance.
Slawomir Koziol – is a Project Lead in our European office. He explains “In our experience, POs rarely start work with a new team and hit it off from day one.
In most cases transformation leaders assign experienced people to PO role. What happens in these cases follows a typical pattern: the experienced PO (who, of course, knows best) offers unsolicited advice on how to approach problems. Then gradually becomes the person who consults and approves everything and becomes the bottleneck.” Slawomir says.
“In these cases, we make sure they are aware of their roles and responsibilities, address any lack of trust there might be within the team. We then guide the POs to step back and create more space for the teams to self-organize.
Slawomir continues “In the process, POs gain a new, wider perspective and start to understand how they fit together as a team.”
What is also extremely important, they know how proactively shield the team from requests and distractions coming their way from the rest of the organization.
Within this first COMMUNICATIONS pillars we have further broken it down into these five mini-parts.
1 Clear Priorities
Steve Walton is a Principal in our Melbourne ADAPTOVATE office. He believes explains this “Make sure people understand both what your priorities are and why. It is essential to follow up with the why as the team will be able to alert you if circumstances change.”
Benny Ko, an agile consultant in Australia, agrees. He says “Close communication with the Scrum Master and team is important because the success of the product being created depends on it. The team needs to understand from the PO the priority in which the work needs to be done.”
Successful POs work on their role to become a part of the high-performing team. The PO will know how to explain the product development direction to the team and what important information to offer, even if the team failed to ask for it.
They proactively recognize improvement areas and openly discuss them with the team. They are involved in the work of the team to guide, inspire, and motivate them. ,They do this without giving precise instructions on how to get things done and thus taking away the team’s autonomy.
2 Less is more
Steve explains it this way “Fewer words, clearer messages, fewer work items, greater focus.”
“Your team know their work, trust them to give you good advice.” Steve says.
4 Be decisive
Caitilin Studdert is a principal in the Sydney office of ADAPTOVATE. She you need to be decisive, “so that the team can act quickly based on their insights.”
Ray Freeman works in our ADAPTOVATE team in America. He says “A key trait for a successful Product Owner is confidence in decision-making. PO’s have the tremendous burden of being the voice of the customer. The decisions they make have a direct impact on the solution the customer will receive.”
5 Be Good humoured
Caitilin says “so that the team culture celebrates every win (even when they’ve failed, they understand what they have learned).
6 Be Keen to do a retro, a demo, a showcase.
Caitilin also says “so that the team constantly improves, consistent, so that the team operates in a measured and responsive manner.
Slawomir agrees with Caitlin. “PO’s must have active participation in demo/showcase sessions where sponsors and stakeholders should encourage open discussion.
Although it is common belief that demo/showcase sessions our hosted by the PO, our experience shows that sponsors and key stakeholders have a more important role to play, especially in the early stages of Agile transformations – they encourage people to speak up and openly share ideas.” Slawomir says.
7 Trust your Team
Brooke Pannell is one of consultants in ADPAOTVATE’s US team. Brooke says, “Trust is a fantastic tool to empower your teams to do their best day in and day out.”
2 & 3 UNDERSTANDING THE CUSTOMER & UNDERSTAND THE PRODUCT.
We’ve put the second and third element together, because they are intrinsically connected.
Simply put, for a PO this means often means leaving their desks and offices. Then seeking direct contact with the customer. Finally understanding their relationship with the product.
What does that mean in practice?
A good PO does more than just follow the market developments by reading market reports.
They appreciate the value of primary sources and work as closely with the customers as possible. They use tools for ongoing customer analytics to understand how the customers interact with the products.
The successful PO will make use of customer feedback tools as often as possible, organize customer eye tracking research to improve design and usability (and yes, that is also extremely valuable also for physical products, not just software!).
Slawomir says “An invaluable source of customer information is a regular direct conversation with customers – actually spending time with the customers talking about their experiences with the product and their needs, inviting them to feature demonstrations and actively listening.
Only then, when the time comes to make decisions on how to prioritize product features, the PO will be certain what will bring most value to the customers.” he says.
Brooke agrees. She says that you must “Know your product inside and out from a user’s perspective so you can accurately represent user actions, needs, and predict their future needs.”
Ray explains “To do this effectively, the PO must maintain a working understanding of the customers’ needs. They must also stay aware of and anticipate changes that occur during the project.
A successful Product Owner should align those customer needs with the business goals and direction. With these insights and alignments, the PO can make more informed decisions, faster with greater positive impact.”
Which brings us to the final – possibly most important pillar:
4. UNDERSTANDING THE BUSINESS
The final piece in the puzzle of becoming the perfect PO is ensuring that the PO is working well within the organization and beyond to proactively elicit behaviours that will help the team.
The POs must be able to navigate their way through the organization and beyond, which means they know the organizations strategic goals and understand how the product fits into that bigger picture.
They actively participate in regular discussions where strategic goals are broken down into smaller pieces of work and that work is prioritized and allocated to teams.
POs should not fight it out alone.
They should know what to expect from sponsors and stakeholders so their work is effective, i.e. clarity on strategic direction and well-defined objectives and key results that will guide them in breaking down work and prioritization.
Slawomir says “Based on our experience POs that don’t have this clarity struggle with cluttered backlogs and get stuck on prioritization as new backlog items come in left and right.
Good POs know when to expect these behaviours and actively ask for this kind of support to guide good decision making in the organization maintain a healthy workplace culture.”
As this is a role that requires high level of flexibility, working with people and good communication skills, certain individuals are better suited than others. Especially those able to handle ambiguity, more agreeable and extrovert can have a head start. This, however, does not mean that extremely successful POs are naturally born. Rather, they are made with considerable amount of hard work and willingness to learn.
And in all development journeys having a good coach helps.
Finally – Continue learning
Brook Pannell finishes off with this insightful thought.
“Continue learning- about business, product ownership, and leadership so that you are exposed to many different methods of problem solving and best practices so you can be the best PO possible.”
We trust this article has helped you or your management understand what makes a great PO.
Share this article with your Agile teams. Have them reflect if they have everything in place to set the PO up for success.