January 2, 2021

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Summary

More often than not, organisational structures and dynamics warp the role of Product Owners and don’t do the role name justice.

When true Product Ownership shines user needs are not only met reactively but proactively preempted. Customers and users behave like superfans. Stakeholders engage like allies and partners.

To get from where things are today towards a state like that only a few principles need to be followed.

Act as if you already had the empowerment, using evidence in the form of data and user voice.

Act as if you already had profit and loss responsibility and use this sense of responsibility in the prioritisation of features and the product roadmap, coupled with an understanding of user/business-value and creation effort.

Finally, act in stakeholder engagement with the determination and spirit of customer service, and a curiosity of their needs. 

For a deeper understanding of these principles, watch the video, listen to the audio version, and/or read the full transcript.


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Full Transcript

“ Hello and welcome, my name is Georg. I speak from a background of about 20 years in digital product management. 

The first 10 were in traditional digital product management pre my discovery of modern ways of working including Agile. And the second 10 years were all about that. I got really fascinated by it. And after doing it the hard way for 10 years, working my way up from business analyst to VP of Products, I experimented with new ways of working, and served as product owner in order to actually do it the easier way which doesn't necessarily always feel like that, but I did it that way for some time. And of course, also through other practices as Scrum master and as Agile coach, I got to learn even more about it. 


So today we're going to talk about true product ownership and what I've come to see as actually lacking in the world out there. 

And you might be experiencing some of that lacking in your practice or in your team where you have a product owner who for one reason or another, is not in a position to practice true product ownership. In many cases, it's not their fault. It's not your fault. It's just an effect, an impact of how the system is currently optimized and organized. 


What true product ownership does though, for the organization, it actually liberates it, and gives it much better results. 

So maybe I'll talk a little bit about what I mean by true product ownership. If we look at the theory around product ownership, if you will, if we look at the Scrum framework or much of the literature out there, it gives you a pretty good taste of what true product ownership could be like, but that rarely then translates into reality. If you think about the three core dimensions of product ownership in terms of the daily activities, you've got stakeholder management, you've got team collaboration, and you've got collaboration interaction with the user customer market.

And then through a combination of that as a product owner, you work out which problems for the user are worth solving, and collaborate with the team on getting a solution created that addresses that. Very simply put, right? So if we simply look at that, yeah, I reckon that might ring true for several organizations, but to me that's still not true product ownership. We want to elevate it some more. So first of all, from what I got to see, not every product owner gets an opportunity to actually watch their users or interact with the users as they use the product. And that is incredibly eyeopening. So if that's not present, I would highly encourage you to find a way of doing that. It will increase your empathy. 

It will improve also the feedback cycle of getting feedback on what is out there. So that's one key thing that I also see is missing from true product ownership out there. Another one is that I think as product professionals, we can get fiercer when it comes to value judgments. There is from what I'm seeing, still a fair amount of getting stuff out there because somebody shouts loudly about it. And we need to make an honest case about what the value of that is, vis-a-vis everything else that we have on the roadmap or in the product backlog.


Does it actually fit the product vision? Does it fit the product strategy? Is it in line with what we're looking to achieve for the user? 

Or is it simply based on a request or a whim from someone internally because they need to meet their goals and this would help them get there? We are gonna talk about how to leverage that in order to move towards true product ownership. So bear with me. So I think we need to be fiercer with value judgment, and we can always question and help them to ask those questions about, "Well, by investing team time on this now or in the near future, what are we missing out on?" "What is the opportunity cost?" "What are we delaying in terms of the goals?" "We're looking to hit by committing team time into this right now?" And have conversations around value like that. So the question around value assessment goes much further than that, but I'm going to just leave that on the side for a moment, because we've got a fair more few things to cover.

 

So another thing that I believe every product owner really should live and breathe is an ongoing balance between quality and speed. 

If we succumb to pressures of the organization and always give in when we're being pressured to deliver more and more and quicker and quicker, we are going to slow ourselves down more and more as a byproduct of that. So have an honest conversation with the team. They know exactly where the technical debt is, in some cases you strategically agreed to that. But in many cases, this is simply a byproduct of succumbing to pressure from the organization. So again, we need to be mindful of what the goals are that we're looking to realize with the product. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

The best way of achieving a goal is focus, focus, focus, focus. If we're diluting the pursuit of our goals by including features that were coming from a whim from left, right and center, then we're actually not really serving the organization, and it's not good for anybody, and we're not serving the user, and that's also not good for everybody, right? So that leads me onto the next thing, which is around engaging in a relationship with stakeholders as investors in the team. And if the stakeholder landscape is aligned around agreed organizational goals, then this can be incredibly powerful.

 

If you find yourself being pulled into different directions from different parts of stakeholders, that is often an indication that there are no commonly aligned and shared goals across the organization. 

So rather than you having to play the middle person going from one to the other and negotiating, if you will, it is a good idea to actually organize something where multiple stakeholders are in the same room and they have a conversation of which is more important. 

As a product owner, you can then always whip out your product roadmap and help them see how everything fits together, and whether some of these things are really as important as they believe it is, or whether persevering with an already aligned product strategy might be better, all right? So whenever the stakeholders are there to represent a true organizational goal, we can agree with them and for them to become allies of the team and investors of team time. And that is a relationship that requires rapport and trust, which you can establish and build over time through reliability in customer satisfaction that is realized for the product, and in reliability of the delivery cadence of the team that you do.

 

What we're building up to is perhaps, there is a theme already emerging from this, which is all around business acumen. 

If you're looking at the product that you are responsible for in your product ownership and focus on the word ownership, how much do you feel like you own the product right now? How much does the team cost on an annual basis? How much does the product generate in revenue? If it's already revenue-generating. What is the worth of a customer that is being acquired onto the product, if you're pre-revenue generation or pre-breakeven of your product? So in essence, what is the business case for your product? What is the profit and loss calculation of your product? Do you own the profit and loss of your product? 

If you don't, and this is now where it might get a little bit uncomfortable, I would argue that you don't really own your product. As I said, this is not your fault. Many, if not most organizations, operate like this. But imagine if you at least were to assume that you owned profit and loss of your product, how would that change your decision-making around the product? How would you be able to justify investment of team time? Wouldn't that enable you to have more candid conversations with stakeholders and argue about what is going onto the backlog or on the roadmap and what isn't?


Think about the accountability that you could develop together as a team over time when it comes to the performance of your product.

I believe if you are even just assuming that you own the profit and loss responsibility for your product, it would get a lot easier to prioritize the backlog and to come up with a succinct and compelling product roadmap in order to help your product truly meet customer needs and focus on what is most valuable first. And most importantly, embrace a lot more of the Agile principles.

One of the most important in this regard being simplicity, maximizing the art of work not done. If we don't carry the sense of true product ownership in ourselves and we're trying to make decisions about what goes into a sprint or what goes onto the roadmap and what doesn't, we don't really experience the weight of that decision-making. Now again, as I said, this might be a little bit uncomfortable, because you may already feel the weight of your role, and that sense of responsibility is important.

I applaud you for doing the work that you do. Product ownership is not for the fainthearted. It is an important leadership position. I believe with the reframe around seeing yourself more as an entrepreneur that manages a product, and in your mind, if you think about it like a little company inside a company and you embrace this entrepreneurial spirit in you, it would be a lot easier to first of all, improve your decision-making around product backlog and product roadmap, but it would also remind you on an ongoing basis that everything that you have in a product backlog is in its own right, first of all, an option and not an obligation. And furthermore, is actually an experiment that allows you to learn something.


So this entrepreneurial spirit is what is included for me when I think about true product ownership. 

So true product ownership, based on what I've covered today, do you experience that currently at your organization? If so, please do let me know. I would love to have a conversation with you and learn how it came about in your organization. How I believe you can get closer to it is just picking out some of the elements that I mentioned. First of all, in a way, pretend that you have profit and loss responsibility just in order to get your mind sharpened and focused around that decision-making capability.

Over time, work with your stakeholders to truly represent the interests of the product and the product roadmap, and get curious about which organizational goal your product is aligned with and/or supporting. I, for the last few years, have been working more and more with leadership teams. And I'm finding that the majority of them don't actually have aligned organizational goals.

There are some company goals, but then each part of the organization which is more traditionally organized, representing specific functions, so it could be IT, finance, and so on and so forth, each function then has their own goals, but they don't necessarily support each other or align with each other. So then there are some products that are not necessarily organized as a succinct product portfolio either. And then the product owners are expected to make a meaningful difference for the wealth of the organization.

That is a suboptimal setup, right? So what you can do is actually through practicing the proto-true product ownership, if you will, is to shine a guiding light for the organization. And in the first instance, for the immediate landscape, leadership landscape, around yourself of what true product ownership can really realize for an organization. Now, I know that there will be challenges with this approach. So if any pop up or if you are experiencing any, please do let me know in the comments for that. I read all the comments, I'll get back to you. And we can have a future livestream where I'm covering any additional things.

But hopefully this will get you started with some key pointers on where I'm seeing product ownership currently in practice, what I believe would serve an organization really well, and what would serve the target audience and user base really well, and some initial steps that would help you get there.

Okay, I think that's it for today. I am looking to have probably just one more livestream this week. I'm really enjoying this so far, and hope you found something useful in this video.

So I would like to thank you very much for watching, and if you did find something useful in here, please give it a like. If you haven't subscribed yet, please consider doing so and hitting the bell button so you get notifications.

And with that, I am going to run the ultra slide once again.

Thank you so much for tuning in. I hope I have provided something of value here.

All the best for the practice with your team. And I hope to see you again on the channel.

Bye bye.”

== end of transcript ==


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About the author 

Georg Fasching

A leadership team development specialist, International Coach Federation - Professional Certified Coach, with global product management experience since 2000, employing Agile & Lean since 2010, Georg Fasching guides leadership teams to delighting their clients, fulfil their people, and improve their prosperity.

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