Even Happier Product Owners

Many years ago I suggested a noble cause for Scrum Masters…to create an amazing workplace and to have happy product owners. Pretty simple right?

While measuring the happiness of others will always be subjective, the premise of this noble cause is to stress the importance of creating an environment for product owners to thrive and a workplace intentionally designed to bring a product to life in a vibrant and productive way.

Before we jump into how we can create this happy and healthy environment for product owners and teams to do their work, let’s align on what we expect from a product owner in the first place. In the simplest of terms, an organization needs a product owner to:

Envision a future that doesn’t exist today. Within the context of their product (and perhaps beyond), they are visionary. They are able to conceptualize and visualize a “new world” others can’t see.

Bring us one step closer to this visionary future every day. This means they are decisive. Their decisions will range from easy to hard and from small to large but the decision-making opportunities required to see their vision become a reality will be ever present and no one else will make them.

Build the communities necessary to bring the vision to life. A product owner is constantly strengthening relationships inside and outside of their team. This includes their customers (or the users of the product) but will also include leaders, stakeholders, technical experts and especially those on their team.

As you can see in this sketch, product owners are being pulled in multiple directions.

The Role of a Product Owner

There is a pull between where we are going (visionary things), what we are doing (delivery things), and how we work together (community things). And the product owner is at the center of this natural tension.

So given the “linchpin” nature of this role and the natural tension this role will need to navigate every day, what are the characteristics of the happiest product owners I have experienced? Here are 9 of them:

They are immersed with their customers. While this will vary from product to product, product owners should spend a good chunk of their time visiting and observing customers and users. Ideally, this is out of the office but go where your customers are located.

Finding the right amount of time for product owners to spend with users is tricky but I suggest starting with at least one day a week. This consistent immersion increases product owner happiness because their degree of empathy grows with each interaction and heavily informs the shape and size of their vision. Hypothesis should emerge about how the life of the people using their products will be positively impacted.

They have the time and space to be visionary and creative. Product owners need to allocate time to take what they are learning and translate this into a product vision and a series of experiments to run to validate the hypothesis forming their vision. This usually means blocking sections of time each week just to study and think. While we love having our product owners immersed with the team, I suggest changing their scenery every once in awhile by getting them out of the office to find their creative space and reduce distractions. This could mean sitting in a Starbucks or browsing a local library.

They have true ownership over their product. The role of product owner must be given autonomy. While we may say they are “owners,” in reality, they are often negatively influenced or second-guessed by others. This is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness. The happiest product owners are fully trusted by their organization but especially by their leadership. What if a leader or stakeholder doesn’t trust a product owner? I briefly covered this here but will address more on this subject in a future post.

They are receiving meaningful input about the performance of their products. Similar to how being with their customer/users increases confidence so does having quality data about how people are adopting and using the features of the product. With these metrics in hand, they can redefine their hypothesis, run more experiments and adjust their vision.

They have a positive working relationship with their Scrum Master. This relationship is centered around conversations about the health and flow of the team. Use these starter questions if you’re not sure where to start building this relationship: Is the team healthy? (energy, engagement, enthusiasm, sense of community, and the growth of people) How well are we doing in meeting our forecasts or commitments? (velocity, burn charts, and retrospective findings)

They have an even better relationship with technical leads and designers. The connection between the perspectives of value, feasibility and usability should be strong and balanced. Marty Cagan has excellent insights into how this relationship should work in his book “Inspired” and on his blog.

They are proud of what the team is delivering. Happy product owners have a strong connection with their team and builds empathy around the nature of creating and deploying products. In exchange for this empathy, the team should be striving for high levels of craftsmanship. Other than not meeting the needs of their customers/users, nothing stops an agile team faster than poor quality. And this equates to an unhappy product owner – even if they wouldn’t say anything publicly.

They have embraced their constraints. Happy product owners have become comfortable with thinking in short iterations and getting things into the hands of their users as quick as possible. They have developed the “small things” MVP (minimum viable product) muscle and are making many small bets within their product instead of big bets. They understand perfect isn’t the goal – but incrementally delivering what users perfectly need is.

They are keeping themselves healthy. I wrote about how important it is to keep our batteries charged and energy high in the Becoming a Catalyst book for Scrum Masters and this is equally as important for our product owners. Because of the demands of the role, one can easily burn out or lose passion around their product. So whatever it means for you to stay healthy – nutrition, sleep, exercise, family time, quiet time – make this your first priority.

Yikes, this is a long list. No one said this would be easy! But ultimately happy product owners find a healthy balance between visionary things, delivery things and community things. While the following schedule would probably never happen in reality, here is what a week in the life of a happy product owner might look like:

  • Monday is for visits outside the office. You spend your day watching, listening, and learning. Bring team members like developers and tests along with you!
  • Tuesday morning is an opportune time to think about what you just learned and to tweak your vision and roadmap based on what your users are telling to you. In the afternoon, block off a healthy chunk of time to synchronize around the vision and roadmap with your designer and technical lead.
  • Wednesday is the time to make decisions about your vision by blocking time to work on the product backlog and to have conversations with leaders and stakeholders about the decisions you are making. Maybe have lunch or coffee with your Scrum Master or other team members you need to connect with.
  • Thursday is team ceremony day. You are fully engaged and energized. Your vision is coming to life and your presence motivates the team to be energized as well.
  • Friday can be allocated to catching up on administrative tasks and for building community within the team. This is the time to make sure YOU are staying healthy.

To all the product owners out there, thanks for taking on such a challenging role. My hope is for us to help foster an environment for you to thrive and be, dare we say it, an even happier product owner.

Don’t forget to checkout the behind-the-scenes story behind this post at The Illustrated Agile Podcast.

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

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