Product Owners And The Agile Community

| November 25, 2011 | 0 Comments

Developers and Project Managers are inundated with an overwhelming abundance of advice, comment and opinion on how best to achieve agility. There is a continually expanding host of new technologies and project management practices. All of which are intended to speed development, increase visibility and maximise learning. There is always a shiny new tool in the agile toolbox ready to be picked up for technical experimentation and team adoption.

Product Owners on the other hand are not so well accommodated and this injustice has prompted me to write this post and make my contribution to address the imbalance. It is with this in mind that I now launch upon the agile community a new and irrevocable agile definition.

It is time we open up as an agile community and support our Product Owners. As with all similar issues the first step to recovery is to admit there is a problem, and so to all Product Owners within the agile community I pose the question.

Are you suffering from ‘Product Owner Addiction’?

If you are unsure what this might mean try answering the following questions.

When you feel that things are going well with product development is your first impulse to:

(A) Reach for an index card and write a new user story.
(B) Review how customers interact with your product to understand the value it delivers to them.

When you feel that things are not going well with product development is your first impulse to:

(A) Reach for an index card and write a new user story.
(B) Review how customers interact with your product to understand the value it delivers to them.

You have just released another successful product increment into production. Everyone in your organisation is full of praise for your innovative ideas and envious of the velocity achieved by your team of developers. Do you :

(A) Reach for an index card and write a new user story.
(B) Review how customers interact with your product to understand the value it delivers to them.

Your backlog is getting larger but you still feel as though all the stories it contains are worthy of development. Based upon current velocity some of these stories may not get delivered for 12 months. There is some good news, the development team are positive and velocity is increasing with each iteration. More bad news, supplies of index cards are running low and the stationary cupboard has run out of your favourite colour sharpies. Do you:

(A) Reach for an index card and write a new user story.
(B) Review how customers interact with your product to understand the value it delivers to them.
(C) Order new index cards and some black sharpies.

That’s the end of this brief questionnaire. If you did not answer (B) to any of the previous questions than you are at significant risk of ‘Product Owner Addiction’.

This post is intended in good humour but I also make a serious point. I work with some exceptional product owners and one quality that they all share is a genuine curiosity regarding how customers react to product enhancements. If there is one fundamental guiding principle that underlies all agile practices it is to be adaptive. That is to adjust and modify our approach to a problem in light of new information gained. The very purpose of incremental and iterative development is to create a feedback loop for information and the person who should care most about this information feedback loop is the product owner.

If the product owner does not continuously review the affect that development is having on customer behaviour then the information feedback loop is broken. The first instinct following any release or product increment should be to establish how this has affected customer behaviour and to understand if the user or customer values the features delivered to them. Is their response to the product enhancement a positive one or is it negative?

If we don’t observe customer feedback and the changes in customer behaviour after a release then the development process becomes the equivalent to a software development slot machine. Each new requirement we prioritise into the development process is another coin in the slot and with each release we pull the lever and spin the wheels. In this scenario commercial success has become a game of chance, and games of chance are addictive.

The following is an extract from a University of Cambridge article on problem gambling where the term gambling has been replaced by the term ‘product owner’.

Hallmarks of addiction

Both near-misses and personal choice cause problem ‘product owners’ to play for longer and to place larger bets. Over time, these distorted perceptions of one’s chances of winning may precipitate ‘loss chasing’, where problem  ‘product owners’ continue to play in an effort to recoup accumulating debts. Loss chasing is one of the hallmarks of problem ‘product ownership’, which actually bears much resemblance to drug addiction. Problem ‘product owners’ also experience cravings and symptoms of withdrawal when denied the opportunity to ‘own products’.

The Product Owner may own the product but it is the customer that values the product. It is a combination of both visionary product ownership and customer feedback that builds great products. Great products are seldom built by chance.

More on the topic of Product Owner

http://agilescout.com/top-10-essential-product-owner-characteristics/

http://agilecomplexificationinverter.blogspot.com/2011/03/what-does-good-product-owner-need.html

http://www.agile42.com/blog/2011/11/16/tips-and-tricks-beginner-product-owner/

http://blog.quasutra.com/2011/10/23/who-is-the-product-owner-in-your-startup/

http://www.jrothman.com/blog/mpd/2011/08/when-you-have-no-product-owner-at-all.html

About the Author:

Kevin has more than fourteen years commercial experience in the design and development of enterprise scale software applications. He is the author of both the Dynamic Range and Limited Days estimation techniques and is principal contributor to the IT Kanban Framework. He works with companies to support their transition to lean and agile methods from team to enterprise scale. Kevin provides independent consultancy and delivers courses in lean, Kanban, and agile practices, employing real world examples and experience to support organisations on their journey to continuous improvement. Recent clients include: Financial Times; Pearson; BAA; and Barclays.
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