Escaping the Product Owner’s Trap: A Path to Unleashing True Value
In assisting several Product Owners in a number of larger organizations, we’ve noticed a recurring challenge that we’ve called ‘Escaping the Product Owner’s Trap’!
Many Product Owners find themselves operating more as component owners than embracing the ownership of a Product. They commence their journey with clear intentions, understanding their role as value maximizers, focusing on delivering value, and diligently setting up their Product Backlog, goals, and stakeholder interactions.
Yet, vital first questions often elude Product Owners: ‘Am I truly an owner of a product that can deliver value?’, ‘How are we going to really validate our assumptions?’ These questions probe beyond the mere mechanics of Scrum; they touch upon the ownership of an entity that realizes value when a customer engages with it. In the pursuit of perfecting individual parts, the whole is sometimes overlooked. Instead of cultivating value, Product Owners may find themselves entangled in managing dependencies, losing sight of the broader objectives
Table of Contents
Understanding the 3 V’s – Vision, Value, and Validation
The challenge often starts when Product Owners grapple with the 3 V’s concept. Understanding these principles can guide the Product Owner in shifting their mindset and aligning with a product and value-driven approach, thereby avoiding the trap of focusing merely on components.
- Vision: The overarching goal of the product.
- Value: A focus on what delivers the most value to stakeholders.
- Validation: Regular assessment with stakeholders to ensure alignment.
This understanding of the 3 V’s is a critical stepping stone in the Product Owner’s journey, bridging the gap between merely delivering features and truly maximizing value.
Visualizing the Dilemma: A Product Owner’s Scenario
Consider a bank scenario – A customer applies for a mortgage, and the bank provides various services like KYC verification, Credit Assessment, Loan Underwriters, etc. Each service is a product with its own backlog and owner.
However, the bank primarily focuses on organizational initiatives to improve its market position. For simplicity, let’s say the bank has three core initiatives they’re prioritizing – refining their mobile banking app (Red), broadening their customer service reach (Green), and instituting a more secure identity verification process (Blue).
Picture this scenario – Colin, a Product Owner, approaches me for help. The conversation unfolds like this:
- Colin: “Alex, I appreciate your coaching. I’m starting to understand Scrum and my role as Product Owner much better – be a value maximizer. But there’s an issue… I believe in the value of the Red initiative for my product, but I need Sue, Paul, and Jane’s help to deliver it.”
- Me: “Is there anything else?”
- Colin: “Yes, Sue is adamant about prioritizing the Blue initiative and is persisting these items are urgently needed from me and my team.”
- We bring Jane into the discussion:
- Jane: “We understand where Colin is coming from, but our focus is on the Green initiative. Additionally, we need work from Colin’s team, as well as Sue and Paul.”
And the conversation continues bringing in Sue and Paul. Let’s visualise what we have…
Let’s take a step back and run a path through the red initiative only, that Colin brought to us at the start.
You can see this runs through all the current product backlogs. This line represents your real value stream, encapsulating your customer’s journey, and illuminates what you should genuinely be concerned about as a Product Owner.
Does this situation echo the reality in your organization? This prompts the big question – Are you genuinely a Product Owner, or have you found yourself as a Component Owner, focusing primarily on output rather than end-to-end value?
Interestingly, this dilemma seems to have a softer impact on smaller companies. Perhaps the closer proximity to the customer allows for a more streamlined, value-driven approach, where the focus naturally aligns with genuine Product Ownership.
What is a Product?
So, let’s establish a shared understanding. When we refer to a product, there are several key points to consider:
- Producer and Consumer: A product involves both a producer, the entity or individual creating the item, and a consumer, the person or group who uses or purchases it.
- Value Creation: The primary purpose of a product is to solve a problem for the consumer, providing value and meeting their needs effectively.
- Physical or Non-Physical: A product can take the form of a tangible, physical item, or it can be intangible, represented by a service.
- Benefit for the Producer: Developing a product should generate core benefits for the producer, such as increased revenue, cost savings, or societal advantages.
However, defining your product accurately isn’t always easy. It’s crucial to define it at the right level – not too broad that it becomes vague, and not too narrow that it loses its overarching value.
To illustrate this, consider the example of buying a car. Do you buy an airbag? A steering wheel? Or a car? While the airbag and steering wheel are perfectly valid products in their own right, they’re components of the broader product – the car. The car is what provides value to the consumer by solving their problem of transportation.
But how frequently do we find ourselves operating at a component level, failing to envisage the broader picture? Let’s delve into this common pitfall with an example and illustration.
The Component Trap: Root Cause and Path Forward
Many Product Owners find themselves trapped as component owners. The reason for this is often rooted in old ways of working and the organizational communication structure, rather than focusing on delivering value and products for the customer. This situation may be summed up by Conway’s Law.
Some key reasons contribute to this dilemma:
- Work is brought to the team, and the old project mindset persists. Even with the adoption of new methods, the communication processes remain unchanged. There is an ongoing need to shift towards a product mindset that emphasizes the holistic view of the product.
- A focus remains on output measurements (e.g. number of features) rather than outcomes. This output-oriented approach overlooks the true goal of delivering tangible value to customers and the organization, reducing the impact of the work.
- The critical question, “What is our product? Am I delivering something that makes an organizational or customer impact?” is often overlooked. This neglect of fundamental questions can lead to a misalignment between efforts and true product value, hindering the ability to realize the full potential of product ownership.
A common motto that can guide this mindset shift is: “Ignore your current setup, and focus on bringing the teams to the work, not the work to the teams.” This approach encourages us to build teams centered around delivering value rather than keeping the same workflow of (component) teams. It’s a shift that could spark self-organization within the teams, encouraging them to discuss the optimal formation to deliver value.
The resulting collaboration might not change the team structure at all, but it fosters communication and unifies focus, possibly leading several teams to operate as one cohesive unit. It’s a change that starts with a conversation and leads to realignment around the core goal of delivering value.
Aligning the ‘Why’: The Collaborative Role of the Product Owner
In the dynamic landscape of product development, the Product Owner’s role is about more than just overseeing components; it’s about aligning with the ‘Why’, and the Vision, and fostering a collaborative environment.
- Understanding the ‘Why’: The Product Owner connects stakeholders and delivery teams with the purpose and goals, ensuring alignment towards meaningful outcomes.
- Fostering Collaboration with Stakeholders and Delivery Teams: By creating a cooperative environment that encourages everyone involved, Product Owners enable stakeholders and delivery teams to work together seamlessly. This collaboration is focused on delivering genuine value.
- Leveraging Tools and Techniques as Enablers: Utilizing practices such as Impact Mapping, User Story Mapping, Specification Example, User Stories, and more. These tools drive collaboration and transparency, enabling effective communication and alignment between stakeholders and delivery teams.
- Guiding Towards Value: Steering away from mere component thinking and orienting towards comprehensive value delivery and customer satisfaction.
Help to Shift towards a Product and Value-Driven Mindset
We recognize the intricate challenges of aligning focus and nurturing collaboration in today’s ever-changing product development landscape. That’s why we’re proud to be able to offer the Scrum.org Professional Scrum Product Owner course to help. This specially crafted course guides individuals toward embracing a product mindset, putting a spotlight on value-driven strategies that resonate with the modern marketplace. Its key objectives include:
- Understanding and Applying the 3 V’s: Defining and communicating product vision, measuring and maximizing value, and continually validating progress, including understanding Scrum Principles and Empiricism.
- Emphasizing Value over Components: Recognizing the value of a product over a project mindset, and learning techniques for Product Backlog Management, Release Management, and Forecasting.
- Aligning with Organizational Objectives: Aligning product goals with business objectives and strategies, including alignment with business strategy, product vision, Product Goal, and Sprint Goal.
- Enhancing Collaboration and Communication: Fostering effective collaboration with stakeholders, customers, and development teams, including ways to effectively communicate the business strategy, product vision, and Product Goal.
- Providing Practical Tools and Techniques: Including practical exercises, tools, and techniques to drive alignment and collaboration, adapt to market changes, and identify metrics for tracking value creation and successful product delivery.
With an understanding of Professional Scrum and complementary practices, the PSPO course equips Product Owners with essential tools and insights. This alignment with the 3 V’s concept helps shift towards a product and value-driven mindset, supporting a more entrepreneurial role in product management.
Being a Product Owner comes with its challenges, but focusing on core principles can make a significant difference. Here are some key points to consider:
- Define the ‘Product’: Understand your product’s true value.
- Align with the ‘Why’: Keep stakeholders connected to the overarching vision.
- Foster Collaboration: Facilitate engagement across all parties.
- Guide Towards Value: Prioritize delivering genuine value over managing components.
Reflect: Take time to consider your role as a Product Owner and how you can embody these principles to excel in product development.
If you’re looking to explore these topics further or need additional guidance, it would be awesome to see you in one of our Scrum.org Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO) courses.
Alex is an experienced Developer, Scrum Master, and Agile Coach. With extensive firsthand experience, he firmly believes in the significance of learning from practitioners who have put the theory into practice, enabling them to incorporate valuable insights from both their failures and successes in their application.