The Product Owner is dead, long live the Product Owner!

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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For years I have been using this picture to describe the Product Owner role. For years I have been saying:

“The title Product Owner is really an alias. Nobody should have Product Owner on their business cards. Product Owner is a Scrum defined role which is usually filled by a Product Manager or Business Analyst, sometimes it is filled by a Domain Expert (also known as a Subject Matter Expert, SME) and sometimes by someone else.”

Easy right?

In telling us about the Product Owner Scrum tells us what one of these people will be doing within the Scrum setting. Scrum doesn’t tell us how the Product Owner knows what they need to know to make those decisions – that comes by virtue of the fact that underneath they are really a Product Manager, BA or expert in the field.

In the early descriptions of Scrum there was a tangible feel that the Product Owner really had the authority to make decisions – they were the OWNER. I still hope that is true but more often than not these days the person playing Product Owner is more likely to be a proxy for one or more real customers.

I go on to say:

“In a software company, like Microsoft or Adobe, Product Managers normally fill the role of Product Owner. The defining feature of the Product Manager role is that their customers are not in the building. The first task facing a new Product Manager is to work out who their customers are – or should be – and then get out to meet them. By definition customers are external.”

“Conversely in a corporate setting, like HSBC, Lufthansa, Proctor and Gamble, a Product Owner is probably a Business Analyst. There job is to analyse some aspect of the business and make it better. By definition their customers are in the building.”

With me so far?

Next I point out that having set up this nice model these roles are increasingly confused because software product companies increasingly sell their software as a service. And corporate customer interact with their customers online, which means customer contact is now through the computer.

Consider the airline industry: twenty years ago the only people who interacted with airline systems from United, BA, Lufthansa, etc. were airline employees. If you wanted to book a flight you went to a travel agent and a nice lady used a green screen to tell you what was available.

Today, whether you book with Lufthansa, SouthWest or Norwegian may well come down to which has the best online booking system.

Business Analyst need to be able to think like Product Managers and Product Managers need to be able to think like Business Analysts.

I regularly see online posts proclaiming “Product Managers are not Product Owners” or “Business Analysts are not Product Owners.” I’ve joined in with this, my alias argument says “they might be but there is so much more to those roles.”

It makes me sad to see the Product Manager role reduced to a Product Owner: the Product Owner role as defined by Scrum is a mere shadow of what a good Product Manager should be.

But the world has moved on, things have changed.

The world has decided that Product Owner is the role, the person who deals with the demand side, the person decides what is needed and what is to be built.

I think its time to change my model. The collision between the world of Business Analysts and Product Managers is now complete. The result is an even bigger mess and a new role has appeared: “Digital Business Analyst” – the illegitimate love child of Business Analysis and Product Management.

The Product Owner is now a superset of Product Manager and Business Analyst.

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Product Owners today may well need the skills of business analysis. They are even more likely to need the skills of Product Management. And they are frequently expected to know about the domain.

Today’s Product Owner may well have a Subject Matter Expert background, in which case they quickly need to learn about Product Ownership, Product Management and Business Analysis.

Or they may have a Business Analysis background and need to absorb Product Management skills. Conversely, Product Owners may come from a Product Management background and may quickly need to learn some Business Analysis. In either case they will learn about the domain but they may want to bring in a Subject Matter Expert too.

To make things harder, exactly which skills they need, and which skills are most important is going to vary from team to team and role to role.

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What Product Owners should not do

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Last time I set out some of the things a Product Owner should be doing – or at least considering doing. Even a quick look at that list will tell you the Product Owner is going to be a busy person.

So in this post I’d like to suggest some thinigs Product Owners should NOT be doing.

Product Owners Cutting code should NOT be cutting code

Having a former coder in the Product Owner role can be a great boom. Not only do they know how to talk with the technical team and (hopefully) can command their respect but they can also see how technology can apply.

But to be an effective Product Owner they need to step away from the keyboard and stop writing code.

Two reasons.

One: time.
Product Owners add value by ensuring that the code which is written addresses the most valuable opportunities with the smallest, most elegant, delightful way possible.

Every minute spent coding is a minute not doing that.

Second: Product Owners need to empathise with the customer, with the business users, they need to eat-sleep-and-breath customers.

Being a good coder – let alone someone called an architect – is to empathise with code, the system, the mechanics of how a system works.

Importantly both requirements and code need to be able to come together and discuss what they see and find a way to bring the two – sometimes opposing – views together. It is a lot easier to have that discussion if the two sides are represented by different people.

Asking one person to divide their brain in two and discuss opposing views with themselves is unlikely to bring about the best result and is probably a recipe for confusion and stress.

Thats not to say both sides shouldn’t appreciate the other. I said before, former coders have a great advantage in being a Product Owner. And I want the technical team to meet customers. But I want discussions to be between two (or more) people.

(I might allow an exception here for Minimally Viable Teams but once the team moves beyond the MVT stage the PO should stop coding.)

Product Owners should NOT be line managers

OK, senior Product Owners should might line manage junior product owners but they certainly should not be line managing anyone else. Most certainly they should not be line managing the technical team.

Product Owner authority comes not from a line on an organization chart, or the ability to award (or deny) a pay rise or bonus. Product Owner authority stems from their specialist knowledge of what customers want from a product and what the organization considers valuable.

If the Product Owner cannot demonstrate their specialist knowledge in this way then either they should learn fast or they should consider if they are in the right role.

Product Owners need to trust the technical team and the technical team need to trust the Product Owner. Authority complicates this relationship because one side is allowed to issue orders when trust is absent and the other side has to obey.

And again, Product Owner simply don’t have the time to line manage anyone.

Being a good line manager requires empathy with employees and time to spend observing and talking to employees, helping them develop themselves, helping them with problems and so on.

Product Owners should not Make Promises for Other People to keep

Specifically that means they should not issue “Roadmaps” which list features with delivery dates based on effort estimates. The whole issue of estimation is a minefield, very few teams are in a position to estimate accurately and most humans are atrocious at time estimation anyway. So any plans based on effort estimation are a fantasy anyway. But even putting that to one side…

Issuing such plans commits other people to keep promises. That is just unfair.

Product Owners can create and share scenario plans about how the product – and world – might unfold in the future.

Product Owners can co-create and share capacity plans which should how an organization intends (strategically) to allocate resources. And Product Owners can work with teams in executing against those capacity plans in order to deliver functionality the Product Owner thinks should be delivered by a date the Product Owner thinks is necessary.

In other words: provided a Product Owner is making the promise that they intend to keep themselves (i.e. they have skin in the game) then they might issue some kind of forward plan.

Product Owners should dump outbound marketing at the first opportunity

Outbound marketing, e.g. advertising, press releases, public relations and product evangelism, often ends up on the Product Owner plate – particularly when the Product Owner is a Product Manager. And in a small company (think early stage start-up) this just needs to be accepted.

However, in a larger organization, or a growing start-up, Product Owners should seek to pass this work to a dedicated Product Marketing specialist as soon as possible. Both roles deserve enough time to do the job properly.

The Marketing Specialist and Product Owner will work closely together – they are after all two sides of the same coin, the Marketing coin. The Marketing Specialist handles outbound marketing (telling people about the product) and the Product Owner handles inbound marketing (what do people want from the product?). (Again, in organizations with established Product Management this is usually easier to see.)

Product Owners should dump pre-sales at the first opportunity

As with outbound marketing Product Owners often get dragged in as pre-sales support to account managers. And again this is more common in small companies and early stage start-ups.

There are some advantages to playing second fiddle to a sales person. The Product Owner might get actual customer contact (sales people too often block Product people from meeting customers.) And Product Owners should be exposed to some of the commercial pressures that sales people – and customers – encounter.

But doing pre-sales is very time consuming. And being wheeled in to help deliver a sales will distort the Product Owner’s view of the market – just ‘cos this customer wants the product in Orange doesn’t mean other customers want Orange.

And again, pre-sales is more effectively done by specialist staff as soon as the company can afford them.

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Busy busy busy: What Product Owners do

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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If you hadn’t noticed I’m building a blog mini-series on the Product Owner role. Its a role I’ve long felt didn’t get the attention it should have. Frankly, in a Scrum setting, I think the Scrum Master gets too much attention and the Product Owner not enough.

One aspect in particular of the Product Owner role really annoys me: they have so much work to do.

Or rather, a Product Owners who is doing their job properly – as opposed to simply administering the backlog – has so many things they should potentially be doing.

So a few days ago I started to make a list…

Backlog administration: writing stories, reviewing and discussing suggested stories, splitting stories, weeding the backlog (throwing stories away), improving stories, putting value on stories, writing acceptance criteria

Working with the team: talking to the stories, reviewing work in progress, reviewing “completed” work, potentially signing-off or formally accepting stories, participating in 3-Amigos meetings with testers and developers, helping to improve the development processes

UXD: working even more closely with an UXD specialists because the two roles overlap, and possibly substituting for UXD specialists where they are absent.

Meetings: prioritisation pre-planning meeting, planning meeting themselves, stand-up meetings, retrospectives, show & tell demonstrations (potentially delivering them the show & tell themselves)

Interfacing to the wider organization: reporting and listening to internal stakeholders in authority, attending Governance and/or Portfolio review meetings, aligning product strategy and plans with company strategy and plans, plus feeding back to company strategy about their own product strategy and plans.

Planning: participating in Sprint planning with the team, planning for upcoming iterations (the rolling quarter plan as I like to call it), longer term planning which might take the form of a roadmap, a capacity plan, a scenario plan or all three

Customers 1: identifying customers and potential customer, segmenting the customer base, creating customer profiles and personas.

Customers 2: visiting customers, observing customers, talking to customers about stories and potential future work, reflecting on customer comments and feeding back to the team and other stakeholders.

Customers 3: similar activities to #2 for people and organizations who are not currently customer but who are potential customers (because potential customers who have unmet needs represent growth.)

I’m sure some of you are saying: “But we don’t have external customers, we have internal (captive) users”. And your right, if you have such “customers” then you have a subset of these activities. But then again, shouldn’t you be thinking about how our product is used by internal users to service the needs of external customers? And how you could improve that experience (for the customers) and improve the process (for the users?)

Marketing: inbound marketing the items just mentioned under customers plus market scanning (checking out the competitors) and potentially outbound marketing (advertising, PR, trade shows, etc.)

Sharing expert knowledge: providing knowledge about the domain and subject of development to the development team, supporting sales calls, demonstrating the product at shows. (And when the company is small helping the training and support teams.)

The offering: using the information gained in all these activities to refine the product/service offering to satisfy customers or improve business processes; Is it the right offering? Are you targeting the right customer segment? Should you be offering something else?

Close the loop: evaluating the effect on customers and/or process: Are the features bing used? Are non-feature improvements making a difference? What shouldn’t have been done? What arises form the changes that have been made? More software changes? Process changes?

Money: is all this making money? if the continued existence of the team positive to ROI?

Coincidentally, while I was preparing this blog Marty Cagan published a blog entitled “CEO of the Product Revisited” in which he discussed offered a list of all the discussions a Product Manager can expect to be involved with. That is no short list either. And as anyone who follows my writing already knows I see the Product Owner role as a kind-of Product Manager – more on that in a future blog.

This is not to say that all Product Owners should be doing all of these things. Asking one person to take all this on is probably setting them up to fail. Every product owner should recognise every item on this list. If they aren’t doing any of these items themselves then I expect they can either cross it off (doesn’t need doing where they work), or name the person who is doing it.

And I also expect every product owner can add some things to this list which I have overlooked.

In future blog posts I intend to discuss (again) the Product Owner as a Product Manager and how Product Owners can reduce their work load.

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Sprint Zero

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Starting a new project? A new product? Have a team transitioning to “Agile” (aka Scrum) and wanting to get ready?

Why not try a Sprint Zero? – Why not indeed.

Sprint Zero is a way to get everything ready to start work, to buy the tools you need, set up your databases, perhaps do some architecture review, tell the rest of the organization about what you are doing, maybe write some requirements, get some additional training, etc. etc.

Sprint Zero doesn’t need to happen in a time box, you can take all the time you need, after all, you haven’t become “agile” yet, Sprint Zero will make you Agile.

Good idea?

Please don’t.

Sprint Zero is a get-out-of-jail-free card that pushes really change down the road a little bit further.

The truth is: there is work to do.

Just start “sprinting”. Schedule an iteration to start tomorrow and get going. Do what you plan for the next week, then review and plan again.

Doing anything else delays the change and potentially reduces motivation.

If you want to call your first iteration Zero then fine; you can call it Zero, or One, or Two, or 57 or even -1 if you want, I don’t care. Give it a number and make sure the next iteration adds one to that number.

All those things I just listed – and more – that you need to do to “get started” are themselves work that needs doing. Why not write them on a card and schedule them like you would any other piece of work in an iteration?

If you haven’t worked out what those things are then No problem, try and schedule some real work. When you find you don’t have something (a database instance for example) simply write out a card, schedule it, do it. The things you need to do to “get ready” are actually things you need to do to build something you do want.

My big worry with Sprint Zero (apart from it injecting unnecessary delay and loss of change momentum) is that it makes work. You may think you need to do something in advance and you might be right. But, then again, you might be wrong. You might do something – like install a database – when you could quite easily postpone that work for a few weeks or even skip it entirely.

Similarly some say “How can we start work until we know what we need to do? – we need to gather requirements, write some stories….”

But again: determining what needs doing, requirements gathering, is itself work to be done.

If it is not clear what needs to be done on day-1 then the first thing to do is to do some work to find out what needs to be done. The initial work may well be requirements discover and story writing with only a little bit of product building.

Speculative, early, requirements gathering, may actually increase the amount of work to do because you capture all the things people think you need to do. Once you start to put the product together you may not need those things but once they are listed as part of the work to do – and especially if they have been promised to someone – then not doing them can be problematic.

Anyway, having written this blog I now wonder if I should have bothered. Now I look about a lot of other people have made similar points already. As I have been writing this post I thought I should find a definition of Sprint Zero, so I did a search. Interestingly, most of the articles that came up on page 1 of Google are also critical of Sprint Zero for similar reasons to myself. So maybe Sprint Zero is an idea whose time has already come and gone.

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