How To Be a Great Product Owner
Who better to talk about product ownership than someone who worked at Scrum's originating company? See what Alex Brown, former Scrum. Inc. COO, has to say.
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Being a Great Product Owner
What makes a great Product Owner versus an adequate Product Owner? During a recent conversation with Alex Brown, Principal at Glaessel Ventures and previous COO of Scrum, Inc., he identified some clear steps to effective and profitable product ownership.
As COO of Scrum, Inc., the organization founded by Scrum co-founder Jeff Sutherland, Alex worked to evolve the role of Product Owner from business and customer representative to strategic maximizer of product profitability and value challenger. His insights are simple, thoughtful and strategic.
Agile encourages experimentation by providing values and principles versus prescriptions and best practices. Very early on, Alex realized great product ownership embraced experimentation, the hallmark of the iterative process. Thinking back to his start in the role of product owner for Scrum, Inc., Alex excitedly remembers, “It was a chance to actually walk the walk as well as talk the talk and experiment with a whole bunch of different ways to bring more advanced product owner thinking; actually run experiments with it using the company as the vehicle for experimentation." This allowed for regular realignment of business direction and ensured value creation over time.
Great Product Owners are continually asking, "How do we bring some of the discipline that already exists in business and financial analysis and valuations to bear in a more agile way?" says Alex, with an acknowledgment of the impact of this over time. "That allows you to actually not only have the team work more efficiently, but focus on the right things so they can deliver a lot more value in a shorter period of time?"
Great product ownership also focuses on development team excitement. Many people think team motivation lies with the Scrum Master. However, the Product Owner is accountable for the what the team builds and why. These are the value and the vision respectively and both significantly impact the team.
“In my mind it’s the Product Owner’s equivalent of the Scrum Master's sustainable improvements in the team," says Alex. He notes great product ownership needs to "ensure that the team is actually having a good time and that morale is high because morale ends up being a real multiplier for the velocity of the team." Alex notes the parallel with the happiness metric, which ensures the team's velocity is moving and that they aren't getting burned out. "A lot of these things have parallels on both sides of the house."
To illustrate this point, Alex points to his experience as Product Owner at Scrum, Inc. "There were a bunch of things I wanted the organization to do because I felt it was important to maximize the profitability of the organization and to get us from where we were to where we wanted to be strategically," he says. "But I tried to keep cramming the backlog with stuff that was important but not fun; eventually, I started to see that reflected in velocity. The team was not excited to come to work. I sort of violated one of the key understandings with the team; there has to be something in it for us [the team] as well, it can’t just be us just slaving away for you Product Owners."
From that perspective, it's clear team excitement translates to completed work and value realized. As a Product Owner, Alex and the team began to experiment on ways the Product Owner could increase team satisfaction. One of their first experiments altered the working agreement so that when the team finished all the work in a given sprint early, they could choose any work item they wanted from the product backlog. "I found when I kept an eye on mixing in some stuff that the team wanted to do...it created a fairly powerful incentive to actually get through the sprint backlog quickly because then they could work on whatever fun stuff they wanted to work on," said Alex.
"I didn’t care as a Product Owner because I still got everything at least as fast I was expecting to in the release plan. And very often for want of a story that they were particularly excited about, it was in the top 10 in the backlog. But even just giving them that freedom and amending that social contract had a pretty profound effect on team motivation," explains Alex.
Product Owner Support
Great Product Owners also create the support needed to effectively fulfill their role. "The person who is really focused on the strategy of product ownership, what should we be building, why, how do we know it’s valuable, and what order should we be delivering in, often doesn’t have the time to also make sure that all of the backlog is really ready for the team,” says Alex with a nod to the importance of both elements of work. “That really is asking a tremendous amount of the Product Owner, particularly as the teams get better and accelerate and are trimming through more backlogs per sprint. However, because of the disconnect between the business and the team, it's crucial that a Product Owner be available to ensure teams are on the right path.
"So very quickly I start to advocate for product ownership as a team exercise," says Alex. "Where you may have one person who is more focused on the strategic side of that, what do we build why and in what order, and then a person who is really focused on the refinement and hygiene and making sure that team has what they need to keep moving forward efficiently. And the key thing there that I think is really tough is that those two people need to be joined at the hip. So that they both know exactly what’s going on and the information is flowing."
Don't Settle for What Is
Alex also makes the point that great Product Owners continue challenging the status quo. "Human beings, in general, have a terrible appreciation for opportunity costs, meaning it’s okay now, but we have no sense of how much better it could be if we did things differently," Alex says. This points back to the need for great Product Owners to experiment. "My solution there is to try and encourage people to experiment for the next two sprints, try making the time to do that and see what the impact is. And then that hopefully starts to make real some of the opportunity costs."
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