All companies want to be innovative — but few possess the combination of internal alignment, product-focus, market understanding, and balanced perspective on competitive forces to make this a reality.
For companies embarking on an Agile Transformation, the goal is Business Agility: being able to continuously adapt and evolve to the changing market conditions. Without Business Agility, the practices of an Agile framework can only produce limited results. However, when these practices are the underpinnings of a healthy Agile Culture, companies can release the kind of products that shape the market, rather than follow it.
At the forefront of this organizational culture shift are the Product Owners, with their mission to balance the needs of the business with the needs of the customer. Great Product Owners make the difference between delivering any-old product and delivering the right product for the company and its customers. Despite this, many organizations underrate the PO’s importance to product delivery and overall company strategy.
Read on to learn why the Product Owner holds an important leadership role as the driver of Business Agility and what separates good ones from great ones. Then, learn how you can empower your Product Owner or evaluate your Product Owner abilities and become one of the greats.
The Product Owner Role as a Business Agility Leader
The Product Owner role is vast and far-reaching. Their primary responsibilities are to be the voice of the customer and to shepherd valuable products to the market. This requires managing a product backlog and writing requirements; doing this well takes skill and practice. They must be educated in Product Management, Agile, and facilitating discussions and decision-making between stakeholders, which requires the tact and diplomacy of a politician.
An exceptional leader in this role understands that they are ultimately a decision-maker who must weigh the needs of the business and internal stakeholders with the end users who expect the product to offer a delightful experience while solving a problem or need they have. For many Product Owners, the ability to be equally good at both the internal-facing and external-facing roles is elusive.
For the average Product Owner, it’s easy to focus too much on a single set of priorities and sacrifice the rest. Some focus too much on the management of the backlog, refining and prioritizing the work without taking a Product Management view of the role. This is not always the fault of the individual Product Owner – in many companies, the role is seen as an administrative one, merely handling a set of backlog management tasks that might otherwise be carried by the Scrum Master or Product Manager.
However, the Product Owner is a necessary bridge between the business and the technology and delivery teams. Their expertise connects the needs of the business to the technology requirements for a product. The backlog, more than just a listing of tasks, represents potential business value that’s waiting to be delivered. The best Product Owners understand the backlog as a storehouse of potential value, supported by strategic prioritization decisions to deliver the best outcomes for end users — not bending to pressure from internal stakeholders for nice-to-have features. The Product Owner is the leader who articulates the value proposition of each feature of a product, and can tie each item of the backlog to this value for both the end user and the business.
A well-managed backlog is key to Business Agility because, with strategic prioritization, the Product Owner is maximizing the value of the product for the business and end users. The backlog is constantly changing, just as the needs of the business and the market change. A responsive Product Owner sends the most valuable items to the product team, and they in turn use their expertise to give two-way feedback on the features and their value to consumers. For this reason, the backlog should be visible to everyone on the team so that they can then hold the Product Owner to account for his or her decisions if they’re at odds with business or user value. A great Product Owner can take on this feedback and weigh it against the feedback of leadership and their own experience.
Product Owners must protect the interests of their product team, ensuring that they work on only a few top-priority tasks or features at any given time. To protect their teams’ time, they must understand the difference between critical features and nice-to-haves. A great Product Owner is one who can flex their ‘no’ muscle, regardless of whether the request comes from their product team or senior management. Ensuring alignment on vision and goals for the product and managing the expectations of leadership, who are very attuned to the actions of competitors and changes in the market, can ensure that the team delivers the right product for the company context and not a copycat of the competition.
Control the Market — Don’t Let It Control You
Any agilist will tell you that delivery is not just about the backlog, but it can be tricky for a Product Owner who is orchestrating a diverse team to tear their attention away from optimizing the flow of work to consider other matters. The product team can be bogged down in the “doing” of product development and forget to look outwards — at their customers, at the market, and at what competitors are doing. A great Product Owner can direct their attention to just that, setting the example for the team.
As the owner of the entire product delivery pipeline, a Product Owner must have the market launch in sight. In many companies, the launch is the end of the line for the Product Owner, and they have little involvement once the product is “done”. This is a strategic oversight. A great Product Owner will have regular updates with the marketing team to prepare them to plan and launch a campaign in support of the product. This minimizes the chance that the wrong message or wrong features will be highlighted by a team who has been given little opportunity to fully understand the product. It’s also an excellent opportunity for the Product Owner to get feedback on the product from a team who are experts in the audience for the product. This collaboration is essential for good products to become market-leading sellers.
Great Product Owners are also concerned with gathering customer data, both at the beginning of the product ideation process and throughout its build. With a focus on data, which can include talking to customers and testing MVPs or prototypes, the product team avoids a myopic view of the market through the eyes of the leadership team’s assumptions about what will make the product a success.
Empower Product Owners Everywhere
Being the product decision-maker-in-chief is sometimes a thankless role. As the customer advocate and one who must say ‘no’ more often than ‘yes,’ a Product Owner can feel like they’re at war with the world, especially in an organization that’s struggling with Agile Transformation.
Business Agility is a necessary mix of looking outward to the market and inward to the values and vision of the company. Empowering the Product Owner to see both sides of building a product will create a powerful leader in your organization with the clarity of vision to see how your products can change the company and the market for the better. So what can you do to help?
Support Your Product Owner
If you’re a new Agile Coach, you may be tempted to focus on the product team and assume their leadership has everything under control. However, strong leaders make strong teams, and an empowered Product Owner will ultimately be a key champion for your Agile transformation efforts. To best support them, pay attention to how they’re managing the balance between focusing on the internal needs of the team and company, and the external focus on the market and competition. How is the Product Owner taking on feedback and market information, and does this impact product strategy?
The Product Owner and how their role is positioned in the company is often a leading indicator of the success of an Agile Transformation. Strong Product Owners are typically supported by senior leaders who are living the values of Agile. If you see room for improvement in the way a Product Owner approaches their role, look for the areas in which they are constrained and work to unblock them.
Assess Your Abilities as a Product Owner
Her advice is backed by decades of international experience developing winning products, leading Lean and Agile Transformation efforts as a Fortune 500 executive, and shaping the future of Agile as a board member at leading industry organizations. She recommends taking a look at the tasks on your plate at this moment, and dividing them into three buckets:
- Team Management
- Backlog Management
- Product Outcome Management
After you’ve sorted the tasks, ask yourself: Where am I lacking balance?
Too many tasks in the Backlog Management column may indicate that you’re not spending enough time looking outwards at the customer and market. Too many in the Product Outcome column may mean you’re neglecting the daily management of the backlog to optimize cycle time and work-in-process. Too many tasks in the Team Management bucket may mean that you need to lean more heavily on your Scrum Master or Product Manager to help manage the needs and expectations of the product team.
Once you’ve assessed your abilities, it’s time to take action.
Take These Actions Today to Become a Better Product Owner
1. Balance stakeholder perspectives
Do you let the constant barrage of input impact the product vision and mission? Most often, conflicting feedback can leave Product Owners feeling like the rope in a game of tug-of-war. To weigh the feedback you’re receiving appropriately, seek to understand the motivation behind it. In this way, you’ll remain customer-centric, you’ll respect the capacity of your team, and you’ll feel confident saying no when it’s needed. Remember, the cost of delay will hurt the company more than adding bonus features will help!
2. Lean on your Scrum Master, But Maintain Your Control
While the product team answers to the Scrum Master for day-to-day delivery of their work, the team is ultimately delivering value to the Product Owner. Therefore the Product Owner is the central role, and you must coach the team to use their skills for Business Agility. Your role is in service to the product, not the treadmill of tasks and features. A successful Product Owner motivates the team to look beyond what they owe to their Scrum Master today and visualize what they owe to the customer tomorrow.
3. Write the Right User Stories
While user stories and features/epics are often created before the work begins, it’s critical to have ongoing conversations with your team to ensure you can manage dependencies, align on priorities, and resolve issues before they cause delays. Remember, you are the primary proxy for your end users, and therefore your role is pivotal in communicating what they need. Good user stories ensure that the acceptance criteria for each piece of work actually stems from the needs of the end user, and quality issues are minimized from the beginning of the workflow. Review your Definition of Ready and Definition of Done frequently to ensure that you’re building the right thing, not just the easy thing.
4. Invest in Your Education
Upskill With Courses:
Grow your skills with professional Product Owner certifications that build on one another:
The Certified Scrum Product Owner® (CSPO®) course is for those ready to master the Product Owner Role and effectively manage the Product Backlog. The Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner (A-CSPO℠) course dives deeper into your role as Product Owner, and teaches advanced skills to manage your product launches, backlog, and team to the best outcomes for your company. The Certified Scrum Professional®️-Product Owner (CSP®️-PO) course picks up where the A-CSPO®️ course left off and takes your Product Owner skills to the next level! This class dives deep into Product Strategy, from customer discovery and development to business models and competitive analysis, and explores how Product Owners help launch new teams, work with their stakeholders on planning and forecasting, and work with multiple teams on their backlogs.
Strengthen your understanding of how to align product ownership with company goals and strategy with our new Business Agility Foundations - Enterprise Edition (ICP-BAF) course. You’ll learn to implement, scale, sustain, and evolve Business Agility and bring the rest of the organization with you for the journey.
Broaden your understanding of your organization’s product portfolio with our Lean Portfolio Management (ICP-LPM) course. Product Owners can move away from the single silo of their product delivery pipeline and see the organization as a whole, including determining which projects to fund and which to cut. Our modern, framework-agnostic Lean Portfolio Management democratizes the process of strategy creation, ensuring the goals and vision of the organization are equitable, achievable and motivating for the whole company. Product Owners with Lean Portfolio Management skills can increase the level of collaboration within their organizations, improve decision making and delegation, and optimize the way that data is used. A great Product Owner focuses on outcomes rather than outputs, and ICP-LPM will help you do just that.
Because they’re better together, bundle our ICP-BAF and ICP-LPM courses and save over 10%!
Take Advantage of Free Learning Opportunities:
Register for Hyperdrive’s free Lunch & Learn session on May 10 at 12pm PST and learn to Develop a Value-Driven Strategy for Better Business Agility.
Speaker Evelyn Tian will guide attendees to see beyond a practice or department-based approach to one that focuses on delivering the most value for the business, breaking down silos to achieve excellence in product and organization.
She’ll demystify Business Agility and show you how to:
- Make real impacts on products and organizations with a value-driven strategy
- Focus effort and investment
- Identify areas of your business that need improvement
- Take action immediately after the session to improve your business!
Register here, and don’t forget to share the link with your team!
Questions? We Can Help.
When you’re ready to move beyond piecemeal resources and take your Agile skills or transformation efforts to the next level, get personalized support from the world’s leaders in agility.