Tuesday 2 November 2010

Good Product Owner Wrapup

Dear Junior

I would like to wrap up our discussion about the good product owner and the characteristics thereof. Of course there are many important attributes, and there are even more ways to select words for them. However, I think a lot of them are caught by the two-by-two containing "engaged, involved, decisive, and empowered".
                  personal   organisational
social:       engaged    involved
formal:     decisive    empowered
It does not tell everything about a good product owner. It is just a model, meant to capture some important points in a concise way. So, let's just have a walk around this picture.

Starting with engaged we have a product owner that cares, who thinks the product and the system is important. This product owner has an inner drive to do things for the benefit of the product. So, it is a personal attribute. Also it is not so much about mandate and formalities, it is more about interacting with people, so "engaged" is set in a social setting.

Moving over to right we stay in the social setting, but transfer to the organisational attribute of being involved (from Latin "in the turning"; today we would probably say:"in the loop"). We are still talking about "interacting with people", but now it is not the person's inner drive. Instead it is the organisation "letting" the PO being involved. Rephrased, the organisation thinks that being product owner is the most important thing on this persons job description - there is nowhere else this person rather should be.

Moving down we stay on organisational attributes, but switch to talk about formalities. Being empowered is all about having the organisational mandate to take decisions that will stand. Of course the product owner can change her mind, and re-decide something else later. However, that is the decision of the product owner herself - not something the rest of the organisation can force upon her. The PO is a little bit like the "local CEO" of the product.

Moving to the left we stay on formalities, but move back to personal attributes. Being decisive is to have the personal drive to actually make decisions when they are needed. Of cause even a decisive person can change her mind, but the good product owner will take decisions with respect to the team, not throwing them "of balance" by completely changing direction. Still it is being decisive in the moment needed that keeps progress going.

Moving up we stay on personal attributes, but cross the border of formalities back to social settings and we end up at engaged where we started.

Now, this model is nothing but a model, and thus it is limited in its power and limited in its reach. In other words: it misses a lot of important points. It is also a product of annotating specific words specific meanings, that are by no mean ubiquitous.

Other words

Steven Hale pointed out that the distinction between "engaged" and "involved" is unclear (to say the least). He has suggested "interested" and "active" as a more distinct pair for the social attributes. This also makes the acronym IDEA possible  - which is neat. However, in defense of "engaged/involved" he also notes that there was a girl with whom he got involved, later engaged, and now they are married.

Important things missed

There are also important things this model leaves out. One of the things Joakim Holm pointed out is that fails to mention the "burning vision" the product owner should uphold. I could not agree more - that is one of the most of important things a product owner should establish, nurture, and communicate (I am keen to say "radiate"). And that dimension is not caught in this discussion on "characteristics".

In the end - this two-by-two is just a model. Being a such some important things fall outside, for the simplicity of expressing many important things concisely. To me, this model capture a lot of important attributes.

The way to judge a model is not whether it is "true, or not". It is whether it is useful in important circumstances. Personally  have used this model a lot of times when trying to figure out what is wrong in situations that does not work well. It has also deepened my understanding of agile and how it relies on humans, as individuals and their interactions, rather than setting and trusting formal structures.

I hope it will come useful to you.



ps So, who will become a good product owner? Well, for example, I have met some really good project managers that I think would become excellent product owners.