As more and more software organizations adopt Agile methods, the lack of strong Product Ownership is becoming more acute and is a limiting factor in the success of Agile implementations. Even when you have a competent Product Owner by Scrum certification standards, over the long haul it’s just not enough. Unless the Product Owner is a Product Manager or working side by side with a Product Manager, he or she is missing some key principles that will ultimately limit the amount of value the team can deliver. Here are five key principles that Product Owners need to know to lead their software products to success. They apply whether you’re in an ISV organization, or developing software for internal use.
1. Product life cycles
Similar to living beings, products are conceived, introduced, experience growth, reach maturity, and eventually decline. The key principle in product life cycles is that product strategy changes with each stage of the life cycle. Product Managers understand how and when to change the strategy to focus on maximizing the value of the product over time. So – what is product strategy?
2. Product strategy
At its essence, product strategy is all about saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when making product investment decisions. If strategy changes over the product life cycle, then how you prioritize investments and user stories also changes over the product life cycle. Product Owners need to understand these changes so that they can manage stakeholders and manage the backlog to deliver the most value over the life of the product.
Bonus: Product life cycle and product strategy are also the keys to building an effective longer-term roadmap. Here’s what Dean Leffingwell, who I view as the definitive leader in the Agile community when it comes to understanding Product Owner and Product Manager interactions, says about roadmaps in his book Agile Software Requirements:
“The Roadmap consists of a series of planned release dates, each of which has a theme and a prioritized feature set. Although it is a simple thing mechanically to represent the Roadmap, figuring out the context for anything beyond the next release is another matter entirely.”
Why is that? Because most product organizations aren’t applying product life cycle thinking and crafting product strategies. These are the missing inputs to a product roadmap that can go beyond the next release.
3. Deep understanding of product vision
Backing up the product strategy is a clear statement of the product’s vision and the reasoning that supports the vision. A strong vision statement contains four elements:
- the problem to be solved
- for an explicit set of users or customers,
- the value customers will receive from solving the problem, and
- the focus for making this product better than all other alternatives solutions.
Product Managers regularly craft this type of vision statement, which they call “positioning.” Each element of the positioning is supported by research. Product Owners and their teams need to understand the vision and the reasoning behind it to ensure that the planned value is realized.
4. Collaborative prioritization
In a recent discussion with a colleague about product management, he was mortified to learn that in the product management realm, nearly every decision is made by committee. To him, this concept could only result in a long series of “Dilbert” moments. Successful product managers only get that way by mastering the art of “buy-in” from the diverse set of team members that we need in order to create a successful product – Sales, Finance, Service, Operations, etc. Product Owners must work with a diverse set of users and stakeholders in prioritizing the product backlog, and so need to have the same skills.
5. Whole product thinking
Those diverse team members we mentioned in #4? They may have specific needs that must be addressed within the software, as requirements, in order to create a successful product or a solution. It has long been understood that one of the biggest points of failure in software projects has been incomplete requirements, and Product Managers know that requirements come from more than just the users and system administrators. Product Owners need to reach beyond their typical user personas to ensure that the team delivers on organization-wide needs in order to fully realize the value of the software product.
Where can Product Owners go to get the Product Management knowledge they need? There are lots of great blogs, books, and workshops out there that will extend Product Owner knowledge and skill in these key strategic areas.
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