Product Owners: Are You Solving Real Problems?

I’ve seen this look too many times from product owners as of late. As organizations shift from can we build it to should we build it, the future of Scrum hangs in the balance. Scrum, as it is practiced today, is still too focused on delivery.

Today we task product owners with activities such as:

  • Meticulously prioritizing a backlog based on assumed business value
  • Answering questions at a moment’s notice from the team throughout the day
  • Decomposing monolithic efforts into small, user centric batches.

… and yet none if this matters unless you are solving a real problem!

Fortunately for us, product owners are in a great position to help us take our next evolutionary step from can we build to should we build. To do so however, they’ll need to leverage other iterative and lightweight visual thinking tools.

Product Owner, Meet Customer Development

One way in which we can address the issue of Scrum being too focused on delivery is to empower our product owners to validate the need for our solutions.

Customer Development Image

Customer development, specifically the process of customer discovery and customer validation, can help product owners eliminate the waste of delivering products that no one cares about.

Ask yourself these questions:

1. Do these users in your user stories exist and have you ever spoken to them?
2. How are these features helping your customers achieve their goals?
3. Are these benefits based on any quantitative or qualitative data?

Customers are interested in solving their problems, they are not interested in your product or features. Going back to the source and challenging the existence of the customer problem is a great place to start.

Don’t begin the conversations with your product or even your solution, begin with their problem.

Once you’ve validated the problem, then you can begin the conversations about the solution.

This is a shift from how many product owners operate today, where the solution and product are handed to them for backlog decomposition and execution. How many times has that resulted in a product that no one uses?

Product Owner, Meet Business Model Generation

Another way to help Scrum from becoming too focused on delivery is for product owners to use a business model canvas.

Business Model Canvas

Product owners should be able to understand and explain the business model for their product to their team. This starts by getting it out of their heads or out of the 100-page-long Word document with the embedded Excel spreadsheet and into something we can easily understand.

The business model canvas is an effective tool for articulating existing or new business models to other people. Often I watch a product owner begin this process with many skeptical stares from their team, but end with a plethora of light bulb moments of “we make money that way, and that way?“.

Not only does the canvas help the team members understand how their work impacts the organization, but it also helps product owners test out their story work against the business model. Business models are not static things. As you deliver stories to customers it can be beneficial to feed your learnings back into the business model.

Scrum teams working in a vacuum with no understanding of the business model is often a signal that they are not delivering value. This has to change!

Product Owner, Meet Lean Startup

Yet another way for product owners to help Scrum evolve is to practice Lean Startup techniques. Much like customer development, we want to know whether or not we are solving a real need.

Before writing your user stories ask yourself 3 questions:

1. What do we need to learn?
2. What do we need to measure to learn?
3. What do we need to build to measure to learn?

Write down your hypothesis for your user stories so that you do not suffer from after the fact rationalization. Use these hypotheses to create the connection of the why of the work with your team members. Once you’ve validated these experiments bring the learnings back into your backlog. If this seems too intimidating I suggest working with an analyst to find the right measurements.

Once your team gets a taste of working in this manner, they’ll push back on user stories that have no hypothesis. Both you and your team will be better for it, as the biggest waste of all is the time, passion and energy of people creating something no one uses.

A Call to Action

Product owners, you’ve been trampled on long enough. You’ve been labeled as single wring-able necks and the fingers are pointed at you when the sprint fails, the release fails, and the product fails.

It is time that you wake up and realize that Scrum is far too focused on delivery. I believe you can help it remain relevant in these uncertain times. Product owners can blaze a trail for the future of Scrum by adopting customer development, business model generation, and lean startup.

What say you?

Take the Next Step: For more on lean startup in the enterprise and business model canvases, check out this recorded webinar from David Bland.