Thursday 21 October 2010

Empowered Product Owner

Dear Junior

Let us say that you have a product owner personally engaged, organisationally involved, and who is decisive enough to take decisions. For having a good product owner you only lack the fourth characteristics; you want the product owner to be empowered.
Engaged Involved
Decisive Empowered
Of course it does not help much having a product owner taking decisions if she does not have the authority to do so. The problem is that any decision the team has started working from can suddenly be revoked. 
Sorry folks, I just talked to the Guy-Who-Decides-Stuff and you remember that delimitation we settled for yesterday …. well, to make a long story short, he thinks it is an over-simplification, so we cannot do that. I am really sorry if it messes up things for you …
Agile methods in general are built do handle change. But you want that change to come controlled — not on things in-sprint after you have spent considerable time and effort working on it. If the team gets contra-orders repeatedly during a sprint they start mistrusting the decisions and guess if they lose tempo!

This is really what I do not like about "Proxy Product Owner". Such a one can be engaged, involved, and decisive. However, they are not empowered - the "Real PO" is somewhere else and any decision might be overruled. The unfortunately result is often that the Proxy PO gets indecisive.
Proxy PO: Sound good, just let me check with Guy-Who-Decides-Stuff. I will know for sure by tomorrow.
Team: So, what do we do until tomorrow? 
Point here is that the team loses focus and tempo.

To make things worse, the etymology of the word "proxy" unveils that "proxy without authority" is a misuse. The word is closely related to "procurator" which was the province manager in the Roman empire and who held administrative powers as agent of the emperor. No talking here about "have to check with the Emperor in Rome first".

So, what to do about it? 

I told you about the example of the non-involved Head of Marketing. In that case, someone else did the day-to-day job. Taking care of the backlog etc was done by an assisting controller from economy department. And he had to constantly run around the building to chase down stakeholders to validate any decision he made. The poor bastard did not even have the title "Proxy PO".

The solution I advice is to empower the Proxy to become the Real Product Owner, and the Head of Marketing in this example will become one important stakeholder. 

In some organisations this sounds strange: "Can you give authority to someone who is not the boss?" I would argue you can.

I think of the relationship between the product owner and the stakeholders a little bit like the relation between the CEO and the Board. The Board is not the "boss" of the CEO. All decisions the CEO makes, she makes based on her mandate. If the CEO makes consistently bad decisions, she will be replaced - but until that point of time she has her mandate. Of course the good CEO will carefully listen to what the Board thinks is important. But, the decisions will be her own.

In the same way, the stakeholders are not the boss of the product owner. All decisions the PO makes, she makes based on her mandate. If the PO makes consistently bad decisions, she will be replaced. Of course the good PO listens carefully to what the stakeholders think is important, and try to balance those interests. But, the decision will be her own.

In traditional organisations there is a glory around the word "owner" that tend to push the title "up the ladder". If it is a really important system, then it might make sense to have the Head of Marketing to be product owner. But then the system must also be important enough for that person to spend considerable time on its development. Otherwise, delegate both the task and the authority to someone who has the time.

This is actually nothing but an instance of the good advice on organisational structure: Strive for aligning task, competence, and mandate.

Sounds pretty obvious, but it is interesting to see how often these are not well-aligned in many organisations.

Being empowered is a characteristics in an organisational context, in the same way  as "involved" is "allowed by the organisation to spend time with the team". However, it is not so much about the informal situations that "involved" is mostly about, it is more about when there are time to make decisions. In that respect it is more related to being decisive.
Engaged Involved
Decisive Empowered
If you are in an organisation that manage to hand you an empowered product owner, you have a good chance to keep things rolling.