One of the things that many agile approaches, that I’ve been involved in or nearby, get stuck on is the role of the Product Owner. The role simply doesn’t sit right in bigger organisations. I think there are many reasons for that and I will share a few in this post.
I also wanted to share an unlikely but great example of a great product owner that I met at my current client.
Finally I will share some ideas on how to remedy the problems often found around the product owner role in big organisations (where I mostly worked).
But first let’s meet a great product owner.
(When I’m writing product below please substitute service as needed.)
The great product owner in the diner
My current client is a food retailer in Sweden. Quite naturally the quality in the diner is great - but I realised that the diner is run by another company. In fact it’s a franchise. Doesn’t really matter, but my story is about the owner of that diner restaurant.
He is one of the best examples of a product owner I’ve seen so far.
The diner is pretty big with about 400 seats and your ordinary buffet get-it-yourself-serving setup. The food is great - I know I’ve been eating there everyday for the last 10 months - and the rest of the place is … pretty ordinary. A bit cumbersome around getting the food, there’s some queues here and there.
But what stands out is this owner - let’s call him Richard. You can find him everywhere in the restaurant; sometimes he’s in the kitchen urging on the chefs, sometimes he’s over at the dishes sorting and cleaning, he bring food to the serving places and sometimes he’s in the cashier.
But everywhere he goes he’s oozing love for food. If he brings a tray of a dish to a serving spot, he always stops and introduce the food in the most poetic kind of way:
This soup is just pure love - some heat in the chill, met in a gentle way with the honey dressing and then topped of with small shreds of basil the we repead in our garden …
You see where this is going. It’s impossible not to be attracted to that food.
When he is in the cashier he’s always have time for a joke or suggesting a dish that you should try.
In the dishes he’s shows a deep and genuine interest in how you liked the food and asks for input on how it can be even better tomorrow.
I’ve had some interactions with him for booking a room next to the restaurant and the same kind of passion for our well-being and having a great conference shone through in that conversation.
In one word he radiates passion. Passion for his product. He really really cares about food and that we all love his food.
The Product Owner role … here?
In many (predominantly large) organisations I’ve been in there’s basically just two problems with the role Product Owner - there’s no products and there’s no ownership that can be handed out
Instead of products there’s business areas, projects, budgets or initiatives - but not any products.
Why is this important for this role? Without any product it’s hard to feel that it’s something to care about. A project starts and stops and then it’s gone. A budget is just a financial grouping of incomes and costs concerning one aspect of our business.
A product (or service) is a thing, something discrete that we can talk about, be proud about and feel things about; I love that product, I hate that product.
From the Business Dictionary:
A good, idea, method, information, object or service created as a result of a process and serves a need or satisfies a want
Also many times there’s no ownership that one single person can have. There’s boards and committees deciding over many items - we don’t let a single entity act on their own.
If I’m the product owner for a small part of a larger system I wouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about that part independently of the rest of the system. For example if I felt like my little thing needs to be rewritten and moved to AWS Cloud - that would probably be governed by policies for the entire company.
(Interestingly enough I’ve seen many examples of exactly that at Spotify and other places, where each team and product owner makes drastically different decisions on platform and languages for example, independently of other teams. There’s recommendations but at the end of the day the team decides)
Sadly often a product owner is appointed and just given the strange task of “be a product owner of this thing”. It’s strange since:
- It’s not really a product
- You don’t really own it
- “Be passionate!” isn’t something that you can require of someone.
In a broader perspective I think that the lack of this perspective creates a big disconnect between many parts in large organisations and the product we are supplying to our end customers.
Who loves insurances at your big insurance companies? Who walks around at the big bank head office and talks with passion about our new types of accounts to people that passes by? Who loves banking in the bank? In the project management office of the IT department in the big retail company - where’s the passion for clothes?
What to do instead
I think that it’s better to take an evolutionary approach to change. That is; keep the roles as they are right now. If you have a “business” and an “IT department” - keep it like that to start with. Visualise the entire flow, limit the work in process and start to take measures to manage for a faster flow, for example:
- Limit the work in process to the number of items you are currently working on right now + 20%.
- Then promise each other to reduce the work in process with 10% each month.
- Soon this will create problems (hint: look for work that is stuck, waiting items, long queues etc)
- Start to try resolve these items with a faster flow or ideas to production in mind.
This might push you to form teams to work on certain areas, in those teams passionate people that love their product might arise. Let them be product owners rather than to squeeze that role on top of an organisation (or the poor people in it) that will not support it.