What Does it Really Mean to be a Product Owner?
The role of a ‘Product Owner’ (PO) has emerged as companies transition from waterfall to agile in order to build and manage software or digital products. The role description is new but the activities are not, they combine those of a traditional product developer and a product manager.
A Product Developer is skilled at developing hypothesis, validating ideas, creating investment cases, piloting, creating business cases and growth plans and launching new products into market. These skills have traditionally been honed in analogue applications and are entirely relevant within digital ones.
With any new proposition, it is typical to conduct secondary research to justify further investment and focus (competitor gap analysis, market trends, capability requirements, target market, etc.). Once you have formed the basis of a proposition (a hypotheses), you usually move onto primary research and validation which is typically a combination of quantitative surveys and qualitative depth interviews with target customers. Using this data, coupled with a deeper dive, you then extrapolate out expected returns and costs, plan out a pilot and launch the process.
Digital propositions enable an entirely different approach to gathering data, testing hypotheses and piloting, particularly where those new propositions are features on a website or within an existing application. With a digital proposition, the most effective way to quantify potential is to release early and obtain real data from current or target users. If necessary, this data can inform forecasts for future growth and ROI calculations.
At what point do you start this process? If you are already working agile then the question might better be, when did you stop? When do you start or stop testing ideas and receiving feedback? How much of your development effort do you commit to developing new revenue streams?
If this isn’t already an on-going iterative process and funded as such, your Product Owners are delivery managers – they are delivering pre-set specifications to a time and budget. In reality, most large corporates justifying developer time still requires structured arguments and therefore the skill to make those cases remains a necessity.
Once any product has launched, there is the job of Product Management. This has involved monitoring customer satisfaction, competitor offers, metrics associated with product performance and altering price, promotion, process, and tweaking existing features to keep the product competitive in market. Product Development and Product Management have traditionally been separate roles, Digital Product Owners combine them.
Digital products are in a state of continuous improvement; behavioral data is used to prioritise efforts and provide insight into successes and failures. The backlog and release dates drive promotion, pricing and customer offers, which are monitored and can be adjusted down to the individual in some cases. This is the role of the Product Owner.
WHAT SKILLS AND TRAITS ARE NEEDED TO BE SUCCESSFUL?
The most important trait of a Product Owner is collaboration. The most important knowledge is of the user or customer core needs and the problem that needs to be solved. The key focus is building a product with a team of people that meets that core need.
There are other people that hold knowledge of systems, internal ways of working, industry and/or organisational history. Others that are experts in design, engineering and analytics. The job of the Product Owner is to collaborate with the people that hold those skills, know what good is, ask the right questions at the right times, know when to listen and know when to make a decision, and most importantly, ensure it is one that is based on reason and logic rather than opinion.
TRAITS OF SUCCESSFUL PRODUCT OWNERS:
– PASSIONATE ABOUT PRODUCT – they are interested, constantly challenging themselves to do better and drawing on inspiration from other products.
– FOCUSED ON DATA – they know that data objectifies their decisions and allows them to make cases to stakeholders for prioritisation based on facts.
– A PROXY FOR THE CUSTOMER – they stand-up for the customer and make sure that if their target market was in the room making decisions, they would concur.
– GREAT AT COMMUNICATING – both up and sideways Product Ownership is an important role in that everyone should have an opinion and be involved. If a Product Owner can’t share with others what’s being focused on and why, this is a job failure.
– COMMERCIAL – Whilst a PO is focused on data in a digital context, they must be able to make a link between what users do and how the company makes money. Being able to articulate the business model and relate decisions back to it is key.
– DETAIL AND STRATEGY – able to deal with the detail of a working backlog whilst also being able to set direction and articulate using a strategic road map.
The natural styles and areas of strength of the Product Owner are likely to be varied: assertive, visionary, technical, analytical, creative, etc. It is the job of the Digital Director or Senior Product Owners to recognise these styles / experiences and align them to the appropriate product area. For example, if some products may attract a lot of internal attention, it might be better to have an assertive Product Owner manage this versus a technical. If one of your product areas is an API, it is likely that a more technical background is needed. Get this wrong and it doesn’t matter how good you are, it will be all the more difficult to succeed.
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH TO GET THERE?
Due to the relatively short time that Product Owners have existed, most have been drawn in from varied backgrounds. If the IT department has responded to the need, they typically come from a Business Analyst or a Developer/Engineering background. If the business has responded to the need, they typically come from a Product Management or Product Development background.
Invariably, this means that many Product Owners have capability gaps. Either they lack the ability to engage meaningfully with the business and justify prioritisation decisions using commercial logic or they lack an appreciation of the development process, how to use usability insights and why making decisions with data is so important. Those from traditional product backgrounds are great at justification to business stakeholders and those from technology backgrounds are great at understanding technical trade-offs and prioritising to deliver. Both are needed as a Product Owner.
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH ONCE YOU ARE THERE?
Exposure to these disciplines is necessary in order to progress to Senior Product Owner and eventually to Digital Director, Chief of Digital or CTO. If you strive to sit on the board of any company, you must be intimate with how it generates revenue and makes its products.
Typically junior Product Owners start off looking after a highly analytical area or function of a product. They use MVT tools to optimise highly focused areas of a site, like registration, checkout, merchandising, etc. There is good reason for this since it introduces the core concepts of prioritisation of a backlog using data and metrics. The requirement for visioning and strategic decision making is not as high.
Senior Product Owners / Managers might be responsible for multiple Product Owners and take overall accountability to product strategy and direction. They will be heavily engaged with the commercials and engaging with stakeholders to justify decisions and to share and promote their vision.