The Product Owner – the poster

Being a Product Owner sure is a lot of work!

Following my talk at the recent ALE unconference in Barcelona, I re-made the iconography used in my talk and turned it into a poster: The Complete Product Owner Poster.

The poster is available in three colour combinations, and is printable on any normal office or professional printer. It also looks great pinned up on the wall next to your desk. 🙂

Click the version that you would like to download below to download and print the PNG file.



ALE 2012: My presentation: “The Product Owner – The Accidental Profession”

The Stork and the PO

Here you can find the slides from my presentation at the Agile Lean Europe 2012 Unconference in Barcelona this week.

Download the slides

Thank you to everyone who attended and gave feedback!

The Complete Product Owner

The Complete Product Owner - photo of many post-it notes with product owner themes

The product owner is possibly the most misunderstood, or at least the the least understood, role in agile software projects. Just about everyone you talk to, whether a current practitioner of the role or just someone who works in agile projects, will give you a slightly (or greatly) different description of the role, its scope and its value.

A colleague recently asked me to write down for him a brief description of everything I thought a Product Owner should be, in terms of role and responsibility as well as personality and competencies. As I started considering what this would be, a few things occurred to me:

  • The list of responsibilities is very broad. The better product owners understand all aspects of a product from the value proposition and business model to design to development.
  • The predominant literature on agile product management focusses heavily on the agile process and toolkit: working with scrum or other agile methodologies, continuous delivery, refinement of user stories, etc.
  • The traditional (non-agile) literature on product management as a profession is plentiful, but fails to address how the broad scope of product management skills and competencies relate to an agile environment.

I’ve now set out to produce a series of posts which will form my personal description of “the complete product owner”. I’ve chosen the word “owner” intentionally to relate specifically to the field of agile product management (as opposed to, let’s say, “traditional, waterfall” methodologies. More on product owners vs managers soon.) The word “complete” refers to the intention to provide a complete, end-to-end view of the scope and responsibilities of this role.

It is also important to mention at this point that what follows will be most relevant to the traditional home of agile methodologies: in software development. It is interesting to observe how agile techniques are being adopted by industries as diverse as medical research or construction, however the experiences, analogies and resources in this series will be exclusively focussed towards software product management.

What’s in a name? Product Owner versus Product Manager

The traditional industry title for those in the business of managing the product development life-cycle is the “Product Manager”. Agile methodologies, specifically Scrum, introduced the term “Product Owner” to refer to the member of the scrum team (ie, the product team) who is predominantly responsible for the product itself (predominantly, as in agile teams we strive to embed a feeling of product responsibility in everyone, throughout all levels of the product organisation).

Some people misinterpret the difference as a reflection of the scope of the role, assuming that the “Product Management” discipline is broader or more “senior” than an owner. I take a very different view, and argue that there is no difference. It could be perhaps said that within the Product Management discipline, a Product Owner is one who practices within an agile context; however there is certainly not, in my view, an assumption that the scope and responsibilities of a Product Owner are necessarily any different to that of a Product Manager.

In my writings I use the two terms interchangeably; however it is useful to remember that in certain circles the title “Product Manager” is often understood differently from an “Owner”. Specifically in non-software product industries (fast-moving consumer goods, among others) the term “owner” is less relevant.

What is a Product Manager/Owner?

In his famous 1955 work “Designing for People”, Henry Dreyfuss, considered my many as the father of modern industrial design, said the following about the role of the industrial designer:

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Although he was talking specifically about the industrial design discipline, I think he has equally perfectly described the role of the modern product manager. (You’ll forgive his gender bias, but it was the 50’s after all). The complete product manager is a jack of all trades. It’s someone who can keep the big picture in mind while obsessing over the smallest details. It’s someone who can, on the same day, discuss or consider engineering process, marketing strategy or interface design – all in terms of how it relates to the core consumer value proposition.

A complete product owner:

  • is a technologist,
  • is a marketer,
  • is a strategist,
  • is an entrepreneur,
  • is a risk-taker,
  • is a visionary,
  • is a leader,
  • is passionate,
  • is a networker,
  • is a communicator,
  • is a presenter and speaker,
  • is a thought-leader,
  • is a product expert,
  • is a salesperson,
  • is fluent in software experience, language and technology,
  • understands user experience/user interaction paradigms, and
  • understands software development methodology and software development tools and processes.

Where do product owners come from?

The next time you meet a product manager, as an experiment, as them how they became a product manager. If you are a product manager, think about how you became one. If they attended university, ask them what they studied. The answers may surprise you.

Nobody will tell you that they studied “Product Management” at university. Some will have studied Computer Science, others design, still others psychology, business or even philosophy. Nearly nobody will tell you that they “always wanted to be a product manager”. Many of the product owners that I know say they kind of “fell into” the role. I sort of did, too.

Steven Haines calls it the “accidental profession”. The interesting mix of backgrounds and motivations does result in a healthy range of experience and perspectives in the product management world, but it has, I think, the side-effect of producing a problematic diversity in product management approaches and levels of training.

What’s next?

The Complete Product Owner series is broken into four acts. Each act is centered around a main theme: The Product, the Business, the Team, and you.

Some topics don’t fit neatly into a single act. In fact, most don’t. You can’t discuss product strategy without discussing design; you can’t think about market segmentation without thinking about the competitive landscape; and so on.

Within this series, I won’t be able to teach you everything you need to know. I can’t teach you how to do brand marketing or search engine optimisation, for example. The purpose of this series is to discuss the scope of areas, skills and knowledge a Product Owner should understand, what they are and why they’re important; and then potentially provide some links to resources for those who want to know more.

The Complete Product Owner series overview: Act I: The Product; Act II: The Business; Act III: The Team; Act IV: You.

Act I: The Product

Much of the books or literature on product management tends to start with the process and definitions, and leave the actual product to the end, almost as an afterthought. To me, everything starts and ends with the product itself – so we start with the product here. We’ll look at defining what the product is, what it does and who it’s for.

Act II: The Business

The next aspect is the one that I see most often neglected by new and experienced product managers alike. The business is, if not the core element of a product team, the surrounding ecosystem that enables and supports the product development. Smaller teams and startups are intimately familiar with the importance of such business tasks as raising capital funding or developing a competitive business model, but these can go unseen or be neglected in larger teams.

Act III: The Team

This is where most product owners, particularly those new to the profession, spend a disproportionate part their time. The team is where things get done, or “where the rubber hits the road”. Having a functional, efficient and self-organising team is a critical focus for teams. For Product Owners, it’s critical to understand how the team supports you and how you support the team to ensure the greatest success.

Act IV: You – the Product Owner

Once you know what you need to do: the tasks, the responsibilities, the focus areas; how you actually do it is up to you. We’ll look at a number of key skills and competencies that you should focus on developing to be a complete product owner.

Here we go…

So let’s get started. In the first post in the series, we’ll look at defining the product: what it is, who it’s for, and why the heck you’re building it anyway.

I would love for this to be as interactive as possible. If you have questions or comments; if you agree or disagree with what we discuss here, please let me know in the comments.


Software’s worst enemy: consensus

A vote for everybody is a vote for nobody.

A committee (parliament) voting on something

Photo from here.

The best software and products dazzle out of the box. They set new boundaries and exceed expectations. And they don’t settle for less than outstanding.

Designing software with lots of stakeholders is complicated, but when the product manager prioritises reaching a compromise between all the stakeholders instead of pushing for unique, beautiful and remarkable, the result is more often than not unspectacular.

Worse still are product teams that are set up without a clear product leader – product teams comprised of a group of ‘area’ product managers, who are each responsible for their own product piece, but who together, and in a purely democratic way, are supposed to come up with one aligned, cohesive and most of all compelling end-to-end product proposition. This is called ‘design by committee’, and nearly always ends in mediocrity.

The problem here is that each area product owner is focussed on his or her piece of the overall proposition, and each have their own priorities, visions and strategies. Just packing these guys together in a room is not going to result in them coming up with a remarkable and balanced product proposition. What this scenario often results in is some kind of portal; it’s at best a mash-up of separate products – something that tries to do everything and ends up doing nothing particularly well.

A product needs a product leader – someone who is willing to make decisions that displease some people and to fight for the ultimate product vision. Michael Arrington, founder of Techcrunch, says:

“Product should be a dictatorship. Not consensus driven. There are casualties. Hurt feelings. Angry users. But all of those things are necessary if you’re going to create something unique.”

A product team should not be a democracy. A product team needs a leader; it needs someone who calls the shots and makes the decisions that will displease, disappoint and delight.

Consensus-driven teams often have challenges understanding and agreeing on what is important now (prioritisation) and what is important overall (scope). A product team made up of area POs have by definition conflicting objectives. The PO for component X believes that part is the key product proposition; the PO for component Y sees it differently. The result of the ensuing debate is often a compromise; “ok, let’s build it all”. In their fantastic book Getting Real, 37 Signals founders share their view on software design:

“Some people argue software should be agnostic. They say it’s arrogant for developers to limit features or ignore feature requests. They say software should always be as flexible as possible. We think that’s bullshit.”

Of course, there are important requirements that the ‘master’ Product Owner needs to fill. He or she needs to understand the product and be able to present a compelling vision. He or she needs to be able to make difficult decisions and disappoint some people, but be convincing and considerate in the explanation. Most of all, he or she needs to understand the product extremes that make the product unique and remarkable, and not compromise on them. In other words, they need to be a leader.

I’ve seen product teams try to fill this role with a Program Manager. It doesn’t work: a roadmap slide is not a product vision. I’ve seen product teams try to fill this role with a Requirements Manager. It doesn’t work: a requirements list, or even a product backlog, is not a product vision. I’ve seen product teams try to fill this role with senior managers who poke their heads in every so often. It doesn’t work: a day’s worth of rash, under-informed decision making does not substitute consistent and detailed thought.

A product needs a product leader. And if that’s you, then my tip is: don’t give in to consensus, and don’t settle! You will never please everyone… not all users, not all colleagues, not all bosses. So please, give up trying. Sometimes innovation comes from having the courage to disappoint people (and the wisdom to know when!).