Product Owners: How to Get Your Development Team to Love You

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Ron Lichty was first a product manager at Apple 25 years ago, then managed development of Apple’s Macintosh UI. Since then, he’s mostly focused on the development part of the team. His fifth book, Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools and Wisdom for Managing Software People and Projects, was published 3 years ago and it turns out Ron has an eye for what keeps teams from achieving clarity out of chaos – he has a feel for how to make software development hum – and often it comes from fixing the interface between development and product management.

That divide is typically huge, and so he counsels developers, development managers, and scrum masters alike to forge alliances with their product manager counterparts. And in this presentation at ProductTank San Francisco, he outlined how product managers can do the same – how to get their developers to love them and, along the way, enable high performance teams.

Recognise What Matters

To set the stage, Ron shared one of the 300 rules of thumb that he and his co-author collected for their book:

In the beginning, everyone will talk about scope, and budget, and schedule, but in the end, nobody really cares about any of those things. The only thing they care about is this: People will love your software, or they won’t. So that’s the only criterion to which you should truly manage.
SF CTO and now CEO Joe Kleinschmidt.

Ron then shares some of the key things that truly motivate developers – helping them see the difference they can make in the world through the work they do on your product, ensuring they have opportunities to learn and grow, making your environment and your culture fun, and giving recognition and praise. Equally important is knowing what de-motivates programmers but, first and foremost, gain their respect.

It’s All About Partnership

Getting development teams to love you begins with an attitude of partnering. The key product management responsibilities in that partnership are to prioritize ruthlessly, and to bring clarity to every customer request. Developers need to always, always know that the code they’re working on now will deliver the most value and delight to your mutual customers. And they need to see value from the customers’ viewpoint, which more than anything will bring clarity of purpose and clarity to delivery. Of course, fully engaging developers means also engaging users (remember, it’s about delighting users!) Additionally, developers count on product managers to work the trade-offs between scope and schedule to deliver, not an impossible product at an impossible time, but the best product in the best possible time.

Responsibilities

Product Owners ideally need to always be available to their teams – clarification needs can arise at the most unexpected times. They need to be there and ready with data – what exactly makes this feature so valuable to our customers? why are our customers asking for the feature this way? (Turns out developers are really driven by data.)

Fully engaging developers also demands that product people deliver the “who”, “what” and “why” – but never the “how”. The challenge Ron put to product managers is for them to entice their teams to deliver the “how” with a richness that provides options beyond anything they might expect.

In partnership with development managers and scrum masters, product owners should always be figuring out how to be a dampener to the noise – the torrent of demands for time and attention inside companies that compete for and block the focus that developers would otherwise give your code. Similarly, those groups of leaders should all work together to foment amazing teamwork – to enable and support groups of developers towards becoming high performance teams. In part, that means bringing a culture of listening, agility, and self-organization. A culture based not just around practices, but around agile values – around not just doing agile but actually being agile.

Fundamentally, it’s about partnership, and the ultimate message is very simple: Nothing breaks the partnership model like micromanagement – from any source. But nothing beats partnership for synergy and unexpected brilliance.

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  • James Wong

    Amen! What a refreshing read. It really gets to the heart of it and that’s people and relationships. No mater how good you are if you can’t navigate those two you can’t get anywhere. I heard quite a similar talk a whole ago about A product manager and an Engineer waking into a bar – http://youtu.be/wU-ZgG_B1JE similar takeaways.

  • Dunno

    Great article. I’d love to see the flip side of this too. What expectations should I have from a development team (or a less popular way of putting it I suspect: “As a developer, how to get your product manager to love you”. Because by having these two parts, you can build a charter to live by.

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