5 Common Pitfalls for a Product Owner

The role of product owner is both a rewarding and challenging experience as those who are currently functioning in the role can probably attest to. There are highs and lows but the opportunity to shape and influence a product vision and see it come to life is a gratifying experience for most.

Over time, however, even the best of product owners can become susceptible to a few pitfalls keeping them from building products people love or allowing themselves to burn-out. During the past couple years of observing and coaching product owners, I have captured five of the most common traps unwary product owners can fall into:

Visioning in Isolation. There may be blind-spots with the assumptions you are making and experiments you are trying during product visioning if your vision is created without the insight of others.

  • Leverage actual users. Find a way to gain empathy with the people who will be paying for or using your product. Assuming or guessing what your customers need is a sure way to waste the investment made in you and your team.
  • Leverage others on the discovery team. As mentioned in this post, a product vision become out-of-balance without the perspectives of value, usability, and feasibility.
  • Leverage the delivery team. Ask for and listen to the ideas of the team about where they think the product should go.
  • Leverage leaders and stakeholders. Continuously seek to intertwine the enterprise vision with your product vision and learn the impact new features will have on your stakeholders.
  • Leverage colleagues. Share visionary ideas with other product owners and trusted friends. Build and commit to a community of practice.

Disconnecting from Delivery. It is often easy to get lost in visioning and lose touch with the execution of your vision.

  • Dedicate yourself to team ceremonies. Make the commitment to attending the 4 primary team sessions (planning, daily standup, review, and retrospective if you are using Scrum). Move any other meeting request overlapping this time…you need to be with your team.
  • Be visible and accessible. Beyond normal team sessions throughout a sprint, maintain a presence with the team. This will allow you to answer on-the-fly questions, provide immediate feedback, quickly remove impediments, and (most importantly) connect with the team by “participating” in any team fun, hijinks, and adventure. Yes, this really did happen to me…

Planning with Fixed Dates. Product owners often receive feature requests/demands with mandated fixed delivery dates as well. I call this being a product “renter” as this doesn’t feel much like “ownership.” Of all the things frustrating a product owner, this would probably be at the top of the list.

  • Through early conversations, communicate and negotiate with the requestor to adjust scope or time based on the historical velocity of the team. Continuing to say “yes” to these requests will reinforce the dysfunction of committing to dates without understanding scope and will escalate the frustration of the team. Coordinate with the Scrum Master to help if necessary.
  • Use your interactions with leaders and stakeholders wisely. Begin to educate them on the benefits of small features and minimum viable increments.

Not Measuring Impact. Many product owners have a hard time quantifying the impact new features are having in the market. This often results in a scattered “try anything” approach to product development instead of a laser-focus on solving specific needs.

  • Study The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, if you haven’t already. Understanding the key metrics and what is “moving the needle” is crucial to the success of your product.
  • Revise and adapt what is being measured as the product vision changes. What was important in the past may not be important today.

Losing Passion. The product owner is a high pressure and stressful gig, often requiring long hours and dedication. I have seen many product owners burn-out and begin to lose focus.

  • Take care of yourself. Whatever this means for you (exercise, vacation, family, friends, meditation), allocate time in the schedule for yourself.
  • Get out of the office. Re-connect with your customers (or users) by heading out to where they are. Spend a whole day with them. Go out to lunch and have a conversation about what they are experiencing. Observing their struggles may be just what you need to regain your momentum.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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