Monday 13 September 2010

Four Characteristics of a Good Product Owner

Dear Junior

A good product owner is hard to find — but it is well worth the effort. Once a development team start becoming agile it does not take long before the quality of the product-ownership becomes one of the most significant factors for the  productivity of the team. A good product owner works with the rest of the team to gain and uphold a high velocity. A bad product owner can slow the team down to close to a grinding halt.

I have seen several organisations that have attempted to establish a product owner role, where some attempts have succeeded and others have failed miserably. I have tried to find some way to characterise the product owners of these organisations where I have seen success. Finally I have boiled it down to four characteristics that are to some degree linked to each other.

The product owner I have come to appreciate can be summed up by being engaged, involved, decisive, and empowered.
Of course, each word here have a multitude of interpretations so some explanation is needed to clarify what  I mean. I will elaborate each of them in subsequent letters, but right now I just want to try to convey the larger picture to you.

Context - Person and Organisation

One thing I find interesting with this list of four characteristics is that it contains attributes of the person being product owner as well as the organisation surrounding that person. On one hand side, being engaged and decisive are personal attributes — they come from the "inside".

Engaged   Involved
Decisive    Empowered

On the other hand being involved and empowered are attributes given by the surrounding organisation, it can let you be involved or being empowered, or it can stop you from doing so — they come from the organisation environment.

Engaged   Involved
Decisive    Empowered
So, the verticals in the matrix is about the context — personal or organisational.

Situation - Informal or Formal

In a similar manner the attributes describe how the product owner acts in different kinds of situations.  Being engaged and involved are about informal situations — day to day discussions, coming to daily stand-ups , etc. 

Engaged   Involved
Decisive    Empowered

On the other hand we have decisive and empowered. These are attributes that talk about formal situations — when there is a decision to make. The decisions are small as well as large. A small decision can be to scope a story during sprint, a large decision to say: "let's release". Disregarding small or large, those decisions are important.

Engaged   Involved
Decisive    Empowered
So, the horizontals in the matrix is about situation — informal or formal.

I definitely want to dive into each of these characteristics, but that will wait for another day.

To sum up this observation: I think this cross-section of personal-vs-organisational context and informal-vs-formal situations neatly catches most of the really important parts of what a good product owner is like, and what behaviour it leads to.