Scott Adams continues to hit the mark when it comes to the dysfunctions plaguing the corporate world. His latest Dilbert comic strip inspired me to write about a common challenge facing those organizations who are moving from a project-centric to a product-centric delivery approach, namely developing effective product owners.
The funny thing is that this is not a new role – go back a couple of decades and it was common to have senior managers responsible for making the majority of decisions regarding products or capabilities. As organizations shifted away from functional to matrix models, such decision-making became diffused. Also, as a company’s size grows, the authority for product decisions often moves up the corporate ladder to executives who are responsible for multiple products.
We tend to think of the product owner role in the context of agile delivery but it can also apply to traditional delivery approaches too. A key difference is that product owner ineffectiveness creates greater impact on agile projects than on traditional ones.
So what are the most prevalent peeves we have with product owners?
I’ve previously identified Capability, Commitment and Capacity as three characteristics of effective team members. Gaps in any one of these areas will translate into product quality, team productivity or morale issues.
These attributes are also important in product owners.
Managers who possess strategic vision, political influence and knowledge of a product are often unavailable to be committed to the extent required to effectively support a delivery team. Faced with this dilemma, executives usually will either still commit these managers or will have them appoint proxies.
With the former scenario, delivery teams enjoy good quality decision making but are starved for the product owner’s attention. Decisions which could be made on the spot get delayed. If the team waits for decisions to be made, productivity and eventually morale suffers whereas if they try to proceed based on their knowledge the risk of rework increases.
Proxy product owners might not have the knowledge, vision or influence required to make good quality decisions or to have those decisions stick. What sometimes occurs is that significant decisions need to be blessed by one or more senior leaders which increases the risk of delays. Proxy product owners might also not enjoy having accountability without authority and their commitment to this role wanes over time.
But there’s one more characteristic – Collaboration.
Let’s say we have a product owner who has the first three C’s in spades but they don’t collaborate well with other senior stakeholders. In most organizations there are control partners whose input needs to be incorporated into product decision making to keep the company safe. The solution lead for the product should also have a voice to ensure that technical debt or other sustainability considerations don’t impact the organization.
If the product owner is not able to effectively collaborate to distill these many voices into one, they risk alienating key partners or making decisions which will hurt the company in the long run. While the role has authority over product decision making, this should not be done in an autocratic manner.
The introduction of the product owner role is an ideal way to streamline decision making and develop future leaders but neglect the four C’s of Collaboration, Capability, Commitment and Capacity at your organization’s peril!