The product owner is, without question, one of the most challenging roles to play in an agile development process. Making decisions based on uncertain information, balancing frequently competing needs, providing consistent energy, and ensuring that agile teams collaborate put a product owner in a uniquely challenging position. By keeping three approaches in mind, this complex and demanding role can be very rewarding.
- Be a connector, not a middleman. Align your team’s focus to your objectives by bringing team members closer to the customer, business, and social outcomes the project will deliver. By working closely with analysts, designers, subject matter experts, developers, and testers throughout, you will keep team members apprised of what’s coming, give them the opportunity to ask questions before they’re under the gun to deliver, and learn more about the best technical solutions available. By helping team members interact directly with users and stakeholders, they will get better information, which should accelerate the work and, as a result, make your job much easier.
- Guide your business case, don’t just follow it. Traditional project management generally expects a valid business case before a project is initiated. Agile product managers, on the other hand, assume that a project’s vision is imperfect and quite possibly well off the mark. This approach encourages the team to learn and discover as the team iterates toward early delivery of the best possible results. In fact, new agile development projects often apply more effort toward knowledge acquisition in the early stages than they do in the construction and delivery phases of a project’s lifecycle.
- The riskiest and most expensive failure in a project is building what nobody actually needs, and conversely, the best way to control scope is to decide what you should leave out. My suggestion to product owners? Cast your assumptions as simple, short-term experiments; then work with the team to design fast and clever ways to validate them.
- Use tools that work for you. Your job as a product owner is to see, shape, and share the big picture with your team and stakeholders. Although agile tools like product backlogs help facilitate efficient development, they don’t contribute much to visioning and business case management.
Here are some tools that keep the big picture in focus and guide iterative product development:
- The lean or business model canvas is a one-page tool that helps to illustrate core assumptions inherent in business cases. This includes identifying who your early adopters are, what they value, and how much they’re willing to pay. Once these assumptions are understood, they can more easily be tested and validated.
- Personas help to capture and broadcast details about prospective users and stakeholders. Personas can guide both feature planning and technical design decisions.
- Story mapping helps to guide release planning by providing context about user and business goals along with a clear picture of product workflows. This gives product owners the ability to have intelligent dialogues with stakeholders and team members regarding which product features can be planned to deliver early value.
- Customer validation funnels help illustrate how user behaviors either validate or invalidate feature decisions through simple metrics. Being able to see whether user acquisition, retention, and referral behaviors meet expectations can guide and support decisions on how much time and effort should be used for specific features. Customer validation funnels can be used to adjust product direction or even kill bad investments.
Being a product owner can be a tough job, but by working with your team to collaboratively define a vision and approaching projects as ongoing experiments rather than assembly lines, it can become a very fulfilling role.