Friday, February 03, 2012

The Importance of the Product Owner

Scrum Inc.'s Christine Hegarty wrote this today, just before she went on vacation, of course, so I'm posting it for her - jj

Here at Scrum Inc. we've been thinking a lot about the role of Product Owner recently. It's something that we see a lot of companies struggle with. It’s common knowledge in the Scrum world that a good Product Owner will increase revenue by keeping the backlog ordered so that we are producing the higher value sooner.  But just how they accomplish that isn't always clear. So we decided to offer the definitive Product Owner classes to help educate Product Owners on how they can increase business value and revenue. I've been working with Catherine Louis, CST, to launch our first Boston-area CSPO this month. At the beginning of March, Jeff will be teaching the Product Owner course he has developed in Los Angeles. 

In building the class, Catherine and I have spent a lot of time discussing the importance of the role to a great Scrum implementation. The following passages reflect some of our conversations about the role of the Product Owner and I thought they would be interesting for the community to talk about.
Q:  What is it that makes the Product Owner (PO) role particularly challenging?
A:  The PO is the person who can answer this question: "Is this the right thing to do for the customer?"  That's a tough job!  The PO is someone who is market facing: he's able to craft and relay a vision. The PO is someone very close to the customer; the PO is the owner of a Product Backlog and focused on bringing value (and "delight!") back to the customer. He is also responsible for keeping a Product Backlog ordered such that the items at the top of the backlog are sized appropriately for the team to begin working on, and are ready to be taken in for the first Sprint.
This is a role that can't be done alone: the PO is considered part of the team, and may need to have many stakeholders assisting in ordering the backlog, making sure we're taking into consideration the Pareto factor: i.e., the top 20% of the backlog should contain the highest value.

Q:  What are some of the key pitfalls?
A:  Typically we meet new POs moving from a culture of traditional batch/phased development, dealing with larger and specialized teams, with a goal of upfront perfection and "requirements sign-off".

In traditional/waterfall development, the churn of requirements is discouraged, and there is a perfect plan and associated goal to deliver value at the end of a Release.  We cannot discount the massive cultural change needed to manage a Product Backlog that is emergent. We want to see a flow of value, customer collaboration, self-organized smaller and integrated teams, with value driven incrementally.  
The cultural shift is one that moves us from crafting a fail-safe plan we want to execute and deliver at the end of a release, to a "safe to fail" framework where we learn and improve each iteration. Making this cultural shift allows us to turn this expected requirements churn into our competitive advantage.
Q: So this cultural shift involves a lot more people than just the Scrum Team, including the Product Owner...

A:  The PO is key to the transition to Agile, but because it is a change of mindset for the whole organization, and a lot of players need to be involved from the beginning, roles not normally thought of as Scrum roles. Supporting roles in particular, should not be forgotten.

Take HR for example. We're now formed in self-organizing, self-motivated and self-managed teams, and the reward structure needs to be updated to acknowledge and reward team performance. Imagine what might happen if that doesn't change. Take Project Management:  We're now formed in these same teams, yet there is a Project Manager who is acting accountable for results asking for daily status reports in weekly meetings.

In making a decision to move from traditional/waterfall product development to Lean/Agile/Scrum, I recommend looking at everyone who is involved from initial decision, to delivery of value to the customer. Do not forget the cadre of supporting roles who need to be there as Servant Leaders to remove impediments, clear the path, and support the flow of value (the deliverables) to the customer.  Everyone needs to be on this page: For every decision you make, every day, ask yourselves "Is this the right thing to do for the customer?"  If the answer is "no", then don't do it. If the answer is "yes", say "hell yes!" and do it right away.  If the answer is "I don't know", take the decision to the Product Owner.

Catherine's Boston Product Owner Course will be held on Feb. 14-15 in Boston. Jeff Sutherland's Product Owner Course, for those of you on the West Coast, will be in Los Angeles Mar. 1-2.

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