Before the pandemic, many organisations had already chosen to go agile. The pandemic has however stress tested our agility (or ‘wagility’) with deep embedded, organisational processes and roles being challenged. Similarly organisations who resisted agile in the past are realising they need to be agile to survive and thrive both during and after the pandemic.
The product owner role is key in agile and has been identified as an emerging job in 2020 by LinkedIn with a 24% annual growth in the US. It is a role which can easily be transitioned into and is the most accessible for individuals working in project management, business analysis or marketing roles. Also equally the appeal of being a decision maker and potentially changing the world through a new innovative product is a motivator for many. The latter ties into the fact that the product owner is often described as the ‘mini-CEO’ of a product. Who doesn’t want to experience a CEO-like role which is only exercised by very few? However, before you embark on your product journey, let’s clear the air on some misconceptions about the role which you don’t learn during your two-day scrum product owner course.
Misconception #1 – As a product owner, I manage the team
Whilst product owners are empowered to make decisions previously only confined to the leadership team, they aren’t there to manage the team. The product owner defines what feature is worked on by managing and prioritising the product backlog, but does not define how it should be implemented, how much time it is going to take and who works on which task.
One of the key principles of the Agile Manifesto is that teams should be self-organising and this would go against this principle. Individuals transitioning into these roles can struggle with a flatter structure, especially if they are more used to traditional hierarchy. If developers are often asking you what to work on next then you aren’t doing your job effectively as a product owner. Instead focus on leading through influence and building trust with the team, as these are key skills to be a successful product owner.
Misconception #2 – As a product owner, I need to know it all
You do not need to know the product inside out to be successful as a product owner. In fact, going into the role with a semi-blank canvas means you are absorbing information through customer research and data without any biases. This allows you to learn and grow into the role by being curious. Having some familiarity with the product is helpful to build meaningful relationships with stakeholders and understand their needs, but give yourself time to familiarise with the product.
Similarly, there is often this belief that you need to have a technical background to be successful as a product owner. As a product owner you are not responsible for the technical implementation. Having some technical affinity helps to communicate and collaborate with the rest of the team, especially the developers and architects. Similarly it helps to answer high level questions from stakeholders about the implementation without having to pull a developer into the conversation every time. Of course this is dependent on the product which you are managing. In some organisations there are explicit roles for ‘technical product owners’ which do require a strong technical background.
If you are transitioning into a product owner role, leverage the experience and transferable skills you have developed in another domain and be open to learning the rest. Some organisations, such as Greenhouse, are for instance intentionally transitioning individuals from customer-facing operations roles into product owner roles because of their ability to empathise with customers. Don’t underestimate the power of the soft skills you may already have and what you can bring to the role.
Misconception #3 – As a product owner, I need to have a big personality
The stereotype that a CEO is a charismatic extrovert with a big presence still exists despite numerous studies, such as the CEO Genome Project, showing that introverted CEOs can be very successful. In fact many of today’s successful CEOs don’t fit this stereotype like Warren Buffett, Larry Page and Bill Gates.
Similarly in product ownership, I often hear that you need to be an extrovert to be successful. Adam Grant concluded the opposite, he found that introverts are better leaders with a proactive team. Ultimately team fit is key and an introverted product owner could lead to a high performing team. There are also traits which introverts have which align strongly to the product owner role. For instance, introverts are generally better listeners. Being able to truly listen to your customers, stakeholders and team is key as a product owner. Moreover, as an introvert, you are inclined to reflect more before making decisions. Whilst product ownership requires strong decision making skills, the decisions need to be informed. Whichever traits you have, embrace the strengths they bring.
Maybe we’re not mini-CEOs after all
I think we should stop comparing product owners to ‘mini CEOs’. Every organisation interprets the product owner role differently but I have not personally seen autonomy where the product owner can make all decisions and not be bound by budget constraints and strategic direction guided by the leadership team or ultimately the CEO. Martin Eriksson summarizes this well:
You are not the CEO of your product, you are not Steve Jobs, you are not a lone genius designing a product from your ivory tower. Never forget that as a product leader you are only as good as your team, and setting them up for success and giving them the space and air cover to do their best is ultimately how you and your product will be successful.
In fact I would argue that the ‘mini-CEO’ comparison limits diversity in product ownership, as some may be overwhelmed by the comparison.
You are now maybe asking yourself, what are important factors in being a great product owner? First off be curious, empathic and listen to your end user so that you can identify needs not wants. Also, show passion, have a vision and lead by influence to get true alignment with your team and stakeholders. Finally, build trust with your team by being approachable, listening, adapting when needed and making timely decisions. And most importantly, be yourself and have fun in the process. Now you are ready for your two-day scrum product owner course.