Mission Impossible: the Product Owner

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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Is the product owner role impossible to fill well?

Do we set product owners up to fail?

Have you ever worked with a really excellent product owner? Someone you would be eager to work with again?

The lack of really outstanding product owners isn’t the fault of the individuals. I think product owners are asked to do a difficult job and are not supported the way they should be. Worse still, in many organizations the role of product owners is misunderstood, they are seen as a type of delivery manager when in fact they are a type of product owner.

There questions have been on my mind for a while, next month I’m giving a new presentation I’m Oredev in Malmo – and which coincides perfectly with the publication of my new book The Art of Agile Product Ownership (funny that). So by way of preview…

I’ve long argued that product owners need four things in order to do the job well: skills, authority, legitimacy and time. Lets look at each in turn:

1. Skills: the kind of thing a product owner learns on a Certified Scrum Product Owner course are table stakes. Yes POs need to be able to write user stories, split stories, write acceptance criteria, understand agile and scrum, work with teams, plan a little and so on. While necessary such skills are not sufficient.

The bigger question is:

How does a product owner know what they need to know in order to do these things?
How do they know what customers want?
How do they know what will make a difference?

Product owners need more skills. Some POs deliver products which must sell in the market to customers who have a choice. Such POs need to be able to identify customers, segment customers and markets, interview customers, analyse data, understand markets, monitor competitors and much more. In short they need the skills of a product manager.

Other POs work with internal customers who don’t have a choice over what product they use, here the PO needs other skills: stakeholder identification and management, business and process analysis, user observation and interviewing, they need to be aware of company politics and able to manage up. In other words, they need the skills of a business analyst.

And all POs need knowledge of their product domain. Many POs are POs because they are in fact subject matter experts.

That is a lot of skills for any one person. How many product owners have the right skills mix? And if they don’t, how many of them get the training they need?

2. Authority: Product owners need at least the authority to walk in to a planning meeting and state the work they would like done in the next two weeks. They need the authority to set this work without being contradicted by some other person, they need the authority to visit customers and get their expenses paid without having to provide a lengthy explation every time.

3. Legitimacy: Product owners need to be seen as the right person to set the priorities. The right person to visit customers, the right person to agree plans and write roadmaps. They need to be seen as the right person by the organisation, by peers and, most importantly, by the development team.

Authority and legitimacy are closely related but they are not the same thing. While the product owner needs both the lack of either results in the same problem: people don’t take their work seriously and other people try to set the agenda on what to build.

Unfortunately Scrum contains a seldom noticed problem here: product owners are team members, they are peers; the team are self organising and are responsible for delivering the product. (There is an egalitarian ethos even if this is only Implicit.)

But Scrum sets the PO as the one, and only one, who can tell he team what to do.

There is a contradiction.

4. Time: Product owners need time to do their work – which is a lot, just read that skills list and think about what the PO should be doing. And don’t forget the PO is a human being who needs to sleep for seven or eight hours a night, may well have a family and a home to go to.

When does the product owner get to do all of this?

Leave aside the question of where you find such people, or whether our companies pay them enough and ask yourself: do product owners get the support they need from their companies and teams?

So often the PO ends up in conflict with the company about what will be built and when it will be delivered, and they end up in conflict with their team about… well much the same issues every planning meeting.

Think about it: do we ask too much from our product owners?

Do we set up product owners to fail?

I’d love to hear your opinions, comment on this post or drop me a note or leave a comment.

I’m going to leave you hanging here today. In the Oredev presentation I’ll try and suggest some solutions – and there are some in the Art of Product Ownership. (Last year I described one in The Product Owner refactored: the SPO/TPO model.)


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The Product Owner Delta

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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As regular readers might know I’m working on a book called The Art of Product Ownership to be published by Apress later this year. One of the chapters is entitled “Why have a Product Owner” and a few days ago a bunch of ideas crystallised into this…

The aim of the Product Owner is to increase, even maximise, the business value delivered by the team as a whole. The Product Owner does not so much create value themselves as increase the value created by others.

Think of it like this: if the team randomly selected work to do and delivered it to customers then some value would be created. (For the moment I’ll ignore the scenario where that work detracts from the existing value.) The aim of the PO is to ensure the work done creates more value than a simple random selection. The greater the difference, or delta to use a mathematical term, between random selection and an informed selection the better.

The general hypothesis is that intelligent selection of work by a skilled Product Owner will result in both more value being delivered and an increasing delta between intelligent PO selected work and randomly selected work.

This difference the value added by a Product Owner. I like to call this difference the Product Owner Delta.

Now in real life work is seldom randomly so Product Owners are not competing against random selection. In some cases the alternative to a designated Product Owners is someone else: a senior developer, an architect, a manager or someone else. In such cases this person is taking on the Product Owner role. They may not have the title, the aptitude, the skills or official position but when work is selected by one person they are de facto the Product Owner.

In other cases the alternative to the PO might be selection by consensus on the team, or a sub-set of the team. Now it is entirely possible that such a group could outperform a single Product Owner in selecting work – especially is they have market and customer knowledge, some analysis skills, time to do the background research and so on. In some cases this works, for example think of a small start-up staffed by software developers creating software development tools.

However, in some cases selection by committee might be inferior to a random selection. Imagine a team which has never met a customer, argue about what to do, duck key decisions and never say No to any request. Its easy to image a dysfunctional selection committee.

There is more to increasing the Product Owner Delta than simply selecting the highest value items. Timely selection can help too. If decisions are not being made, or committees are spending a long time making decisions then having one person simply make those decisions in an efficient, timely, manner can increase the delta.

Time has another role. Because of cost-of-delay simply selecting the highest value items at any one point in time does not maximise the value delivered. Time Value Profiles (see Little Book of User Stories or my presentations on value “How much? When?”) expose this and need to be another tool in the Product Owners repertoire.

And of course, the Product Owner Delta is not the only reason to have a Product Owner in the team, but it is probably the main reason.


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Estimation, planning, teams and money, some data

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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When I deliver Agile training for teams I run an exercise called “The Extended XP Game”. It is based on the old “XP Game” but over the years I’ve enhanced it and added to it. We have a lot of fun, people are laughing and they still talk about it years later. The game illustrates a lot of agile concepts: iteration, business value, velocity, learning by doing, specification by example, quality is free, risk, the role of probability and some more.

When I run the exercise I divide the trainees into several teams, usually three or four people to a team. I show them I have some tasks written on cards which they will do in a two minute iteration. They do two minutes or work, review, retrospect then do another two minutes of work – and possibly repeat a third time.

The first thing is for teams to Get Ready: I hand out the tasks and ask them to estimate, in seconds how long it will take to do each task: fold a paper airplane that will fly, inflate a balloon, deflate a balloon, roll a single six on a dice, roll a double six on two dice, find a two in a pack of cards and find all the twos in the pack of cards. Strictly speaking, this estimate is a prospective estimate, “how long will it take to do this in future?”

Once they have estimated how long each task will take someone is appointed product owner and they have to plan the tasks to be done (with the team).

What I do not tell the teams is that I’m timing them at this stage. I let the teams take as long as they like to get ready: estimate and plan. But I time how long the estimation takes and how long the following planning takes.

Once all the teams are “ready” I ask the teams: “how long did that take?”

At this point I am asking for a retrospective estimate: how long did it take. The teams have perfect estimation conditions: they have just done it, no time has elapsed and no events have intervened.

Typically they answer are 5 or 6 minutes, maybe less, maybe more. Occasionally someone gets the right number and they are then frequently dismissed by their colleagues.

Although I’ve been running this exercise for nearly 10 years, and have been timing teams for about half that time I’ve only been recording the data the last couple of years. Still it comes from over 65 teams and is consistent.

The total time to get ready to do 2 minutes of work is close to 13 minutes – the fastest team took just 5.75 minutes but the slowest took a whopping 21.25.

The average time spent estimating the tasks is 7 minutes. The fastest team took 2.75 minutes and the slowest 14 minutes.

The average time planning once all tasks are estimated is just short of 6 minutes. One team took a further 13.5 minutes to plan after estimates while another took just 16 seconds. While I assume they had pretty much planned while estimating it is also interesting to note that that team contained several people who had done the exercise a few years before.

(For statistics nuts the mean and median are pretty close together and I don’t think the mode makes much sense in this scenario.)

So what conclusions can we draw from this data?

1) Teams take longer to estimate than do

Everyone taking part in the exercise has been told – several times – that they are preparing to do a 2 minute iteration. Yet on average teams spend 12.75 minutes preparing – estimating and planning – to do 2 minutes of work!

Or to put it another way: teams typically spend six times longer to plan work than to do work.

The slowest team ever took over 10 times longer to plan than to do.

In the years I’ve been running this exercise no team has ever done a complete dry run. They sometimes do little exercises and time themselves but even teams which do this spend a lot of time planning.

This has parallels in real life too: many participants tell me their organization spend a long time debating what should be done, planning and only belatedly executing. One company I met had a project that had been in planning for five years.

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2) Larger teams take longer to estimate than small teams

My second graph shows there is a clear correlation between team size and the time it takes to estimate and plan. I think this is no surprise, one would expect this. In fact, this is another piece of evidence supporting Diseconomies of Scale: the bigger the team the longer it will take to get ready.

This is one reason why some people prefer to have an “expert” make the estimate – it saves the time of other people. However this itself is a problem for several reasons.

Anyone who has read my notes on estimation research (and the later more notes on estimation research) may remember that research shows that those with expert knowledge or in a position of authority underestimate by more than those who do the work. So having an expert estimate isn’t a cure.

But, those same notes include research that shows that people are better at estimating time for other people than they are at estimating time for themselves, so maybe this isn’t all bad.

However, this approach just isn’t fair. Especially when someone is expected to work within an estimate. One might also argue that it is not en effective use of time because the first person – the estimator – has to understand the task in sufficient detail to estimate it but rather than reuse this learning the task is then given to someone else who has to learn it all over again.

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3) Post estimation planning is pretty constant

This graph shows the planning delta, that is: after the estimates are finished how long does it take teams to plan the work?

It turns out that the amount time it takes to estimate the task has little bearing on how long the subsequent planning takes. So whether you estimate fast or slow on average it will take six more minutes to plan the work.

Perhaps this isn’t that surprising.

(If I’ve told you about this data in person I might have said something different here. In preparing the data for this blog I found an error in my Excel graphs which I can only attribute to a bug in Excel’s scatter chart algorithm.)

4) Vierordt’s Law holds

People underestimate longer periods of time (typically anything over 10 minutes), and overestimate short period of time (typically things less than two minutes).

Not only do trainees consistently underestimate how long it has taken them to get ready – which is over 10 minutes – but teams which record how long it takes to actually do each task find that their estimates are much higher than the actual time it takes. Even when teams don’t time themselves observation shows that they do the work far faster than they thought they would.

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5) Less planning makes more money

One of my extensions to the original game is to introduce money: teams have to deliver value, measured in money. This graph shows teams which spend less time planning go on to make more money.

I can’t be as sure about this last finding as the earlier ones because I’ve not been recording this data for so long. To complicate matters a lot happens between the initial planning and the final money making, I introduce some money and teams get to plan for subsequent iterations.

Still, there are lessons here.

The first lesson is simply this: more planning does not lead to more money.

That is pretty significant in its own right but there is still the question: why do teams which spend less time planning make more money?

I have two possible explanations.

I normally play three rounds of the game. When time is tight I sometimes stop the game after two rounds. In general teams usually score more money in each successive round. Therefore, teams who spend longer in planning are less likely to get to the third round so their score comes from the second round. If they had time to play a third round they would probably score higher than in round two.

This has a parallel in real life: if extra planning time delays the date a product enters the market it is likely to make less money. Delivering something smaller sooner is worth more.

This perfectly demonstrates that doing creates more learning than planning: teams learn more (and therefore increase their score) from spending 2 minutes doing than spending an extra 2 minutes planning.

The second possible explanation is that the more planning a team does the more difficult they might find it to rethink and change the way they are working.

The $1,600 shown was recorded by a Dutch team this year but the record is held by a team in Australia who scored over $2,000: to break into these high scores teams need to reinterpret the rules of the game.

One of the points of the game is to learn by doing. I suspect that teams who spend longer in planning find it harder to break away from their original interpretation of the rules. How can you think outside the box when you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the box?

In one training session in Brisbane last year the teams weren’t making the breakthrough to the big money. Although I’d dropped hints of how to do this nobody had made the connection so I said: “You know, a team in Perth once scored over $2,000.” That caused one of the players to rethink his approach and score $1,141.

I’ve since repeated the quote and discovered that simply telling people that such high scores are possible causes them to discover how to score higher.

* * *

I’m sure there is more I could read into all this data and I will carry on collecting the data. Although now I have two problems…

First, having shared this data I might find people coming on my agile software training who change their behaviour because they have read this far.

Second: I need more teams to do this to gather data! If you would like to do this exercise – either as part of a full agile training course or as a stand alone exercise – please call (+44 20 3286 4292) or mail me, contact@allankelly.net, my rates are quite reasonable!

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Product Owner or Backlog Administrator?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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In the official guides all Product Owners are equal. One size fits all.

In the world I live in some Product Owners are more equal than others and one size does not fit all.

The key variable here is the amount of Authority a Product Owner has. In my last post I said that Authority is one of the four things every product owner needs – the others being legitimacy, skills and time. However there is a class of Product Owner who largely lack authority and who I have taken to calling Backlog Administrators.

About the only thing a Backlog Administrator owns is their Jira login. They are at the beck and call of one or more people who tell them what should be in the backlog. Prioritisation is little more than an exercise in decibel management – he who shouts loudest gets what they want.

A Backlog Administrator rarely throws anything out of the backlog, they don’t feel they have the authority to do so. As a result their backlogs are constipated – lots of stories, many of little value. Fortunately Jira knows no limits, it is a bottomless pit – just don’t draw a CfD or Burn-Up chart!

If the team are lucky the Backlog Administrator can operate as a Tester, they can review work which is in progress or possibly “done.” They may be able to add acceptance criteria. If the team are unlucky the Backlog Administrator doesn’t know enough about the domain to do testing.

I would be the first to say that the Product Owner role can be vary a great deal: different individuals working with different teams in different domains for different type of company mean there that apart from backlog administration there is inherently a lot of variability in the role.

The Product Owner role should be capable of deciding what to build and/or change.

So Product Owners need to know what the most valuable thing to do it. Part of the job means finding out what is valuable. While Backlog Administration is part of the job the question one should ask is:

How does the Product Owner know what they need to know to do that?

Backlog Administrators are little more than gophers for more senior people.

True Product Owners take after full Product Managers and Senior Business Analysts – or a special version of Business Analysts sometimes called Business Partners.

Product Owners should be out meeting customers and observing users. They should be talking about technology options with the technical team and interface design options with UXD.

Product Owners should understand commercial pressures, how the product makes (or saves) money for the company. Product Owners are responsible for Product Strategy so they should both understand company strategy and input into company strategy. Product Strategy both supports company strategy and feeds into company strategy.

Product Owners may need to observe the competitor landscape and keep an eye on competitors and understand relevant technology trends. That probably means attend trade shows and even supporting sales people if asked.

Frequently Product Owners will require knowledge of the domain, i.e. the field in which your product is used. Sometimes – like in telecoms or surveying that may require actual hands on experience.

And apart from backlog administration there is a lot of work to do to deliver the things they want delivered: they need to work with the technical team to explain stories, to have the conversations behind the story, write acceptance criteria, attend planning meetings, perhaps help with interviewing new staff and sharing all the things they learn from meeting customers, analysing competitors, debating strategy, attending shows, etc. etc.

I sure there are many who would rush to call the Backlog Administrator an “anti-pattern” but since I don’t believe in anti-patterns I don’t. I just think Product Owners should be more than a Backlog Administrator.

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