The Product Owner is an Entrepreneur
Jane is an entrepreneur. She is tenacious, creative, passionate, confident. She is a good seller.
Jane has an idea. She truly believes this idea could change other people’s life. She knows very well her potential customers as she has direct access to many of them and have been able in the past to discuss with them about their problems. However, she has no clue on how to deliver the perfect product for them, so the first thing she does is gathering data on the problems they have and how they are affected. This data reinforces her confidence in her vision.
So, she starts making hypotheses about what she is almost sure about, what she thinks she knows, and what she doesn’t know. She is a little bit worried as she realizes she knows less than she thought about the customers.
So she tries to create very small experiments. They are far from perfect. They are not even fully functional. Firsts ones are terrible, she gets confused as the feedbacks she receives are really not what she expected. Worse, most of them are contradictory.
But she is making progress as she gathers valuable data that allow her to better know the potential users. Her list of hypotheses is constantly refined and each time one is discarded, it raises further questions.
She is convinced of her idea and have learned how to sell it well, so she tries with her boss… who politely says “no”. But it doesn’t mean she’s down. She spends a lot of time shaperning her pitch, talking to potential sponsors and finally succeeds to convince one and raise initial funds.
Thanks to this money and with the support from her new sponsor, she gathers a team to pursue her idea. They didn’t ask to be part of it, but are curious and willing to give it a chance. It’s a small team of four, but it’s more than necessary to start.
On top of that, Jane is highly motivated as she is not alone anymore and she will be able to challenge her vision with others. So far, the team is composed of one UX (User eXperience) designer, two full-stack developers and a change agent. Team members have different experiences and are experts in their field.
She made it very clear from the beginning that in this little “startup”, she is not the boss. The whole team is responsible for bringing the best possible value to the customer. She will definitely not be on their backs for everything. She trusts them to make the right decisions in their field as long as it satisfies customers. And most of all, she is part of the team and she is also going to get her hands dirty.
In the team, everyone keeps an open mind and leaves no stone unturned. They have identifed a small group of customers who are willing to be involved in product development. They have been able to depict accurately their needs, current problems, feelings, and the way they may be impacted by the product.
So that after a few iterations, the team has learned a lot by prototyping several versions. They have built and rebuilt prototypes, tested many ideas, and finally found a viable business model for their product, despite a reduction in productivity due to increasing technical debt.
They decided, as a team, to smooth the effort out and keep capacity each iteration to handle it. The list of unverified hypotheses diminishes as they iterate and their knowledge grows.
Jane constantly updates her vision according to newly gathered knowledge. The team works autonomously and provides solutions with a higher and increasing quality standard.
Therefore, she can now entirely focus on the upstream flow and how to detect the right direction for the product, i.e. the right problems to solve. Obviously, she is not alone to decide.
She constantly involves the team during user workshops and facilitate most of the discussions. She often has to say “no” to requests and explain why it is not a good idea (at least for now). That can be hard sometimes, but both the team and the stakeholders stand behind her and support her decisions. She already proved to be right many times.
However, more time has to be spent with some customers who can feel frustrated when they don’t see their ideas developed, affecting the team’s ability to deliver new features.
A new internal investment round is needed as the team need to grow. They struggle to find the right balance between collaborating with users, developing new features, maintaining existing ones, keeping technical debt to a minimum, supporting users in adopting the product, fixing bugs, and finding and maintaining key partners.
The product is becoming one of the company’s key business, so Jane and the team need support from more sponsors. Her strategy is to allow multiple executives to “invest” in her product without having anyone strong enough to make all decisions.
New comers join but productivity decreases at first. The team has to deal with internal conflicts and communication issues. On top of that, things are speeding up very quickly. The product is live for quite a long time and the pace keeps increasing.
Despite the general excitement, the original team is exhausted and less motivated than ever. That creates tensions. The initial success relies on the strong relationship they maintain with their early adopters and the investment in user support.
But now, if they want to cross the chasm and reach early majority, they have to scale up and expand to a larger market, implying more customers in the development process and more people to work on the product.
These are difficult times. The original team need to split in order to allow more teams to form and collaborate efficiently. Structure and processes are put in place in order to find a right balance between exploration and execution of the work.
The original team is clearly not happy with the changes that are happening. Some former members are actively fighting against them and impede other teams’ progress. Jane can count on the help of servant-leaders who foster a “team of teams” spirit and break down organizational barriers in order to improve the time-to-market.
But, together with other managers, she has to take unfortunate actions and do something with the naysayers.
Jane doesn’t have the time to be with the teams anymore. She tries to be there as often as possible, but the times of strong relationships with each team member is over.
She has surrounded herself with a cross-functional team of representatives who refines the vision, the strategy, the prioritization, deals with the impediments, etc.
This significantly improved the teams alignment towards the business objectives, but it is quite challenging for everyone to find the right balance between giving intention on where they want to go, and allowing emergence of ideas and solutions from the teams.
It’s been years since it all began. The product is now well-established in the market. The small “startup” has grown into a key business and a well-oiled production plant composed of many small, self-organized teams constantlty optimizing their way of working as a team of teams. Initial business objectives has been achieved and new initiatives are popping up from within to develop new variants, solve new problems, help new customers. Time has come for Jane to think about the future of her business…
Jane is an entrepreneur. She is tenacious, creative, passionate, confident. She is a good seller. She can take risks and make tough decisions. She is a good servant for her customers as well as for the team, a true leader people follow. While working at a bigger company, Jane is an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) driving a small internal startup. Jane is a Product Owner.
For many, a Product Owner is just another word to say “Business Analyst with some management responsibilities.” They see this role as a story writer who takes input from the stakeholders and translates them into something developers can understand, an intermediary.
They see her as a validator who performs extensive end-to-end testing, and explicitly accepts or rejects the work of the team. They see her as a domain expert who has all the answers and knows the way. They see her as someone who is only focused on execution within a given budget and timescale.
I’m afraid to say Jane is not like that.
Jane has a clear vision and spends time working with others to constantly refine and communicate it. She takes nothing for granted. She accepts not to have answers for every aspect of the product. Rather, she encourages experimentations and base decisions on collected data.
Every idea, every request is considered as an hypothesis the team will try to validate while investing as little effort as possible, even if it seemed appealing or wise a priori. She may be accountable for a lot of things, it doesn’t mean she controls everything.
She knows how to collaborate and take advantage of collective intelligence. She takes great care of the customers, and make a point of honor of building a strong partnership with them. She is a servant to both the customers and the sponsors, takes feedbacks from both, but she is able to make tough decisions for the sake of the product.
In other words, a Product Owner is an Entrepreneur…
My Agile journey began in 2013 when, trained by Jeff Sutherland (co-creator of Scrum), I started as a freshly new Scrum Master at Dailymotion. There I learnt the hard way the challenges of business agility at a time when DevOps and Agile at scale where not buzz words yet. Then I took a new challenge and joined the French Ministry of Justice as one of its first Scrum Masters, proving the efficiency and compatibility of Lean-Agile approaches with Public Sector. I am now a Lean-Agile Coach & Trainer at Capgemini Toulouse, France. I have trained, coached and mentored hundreds of people on the field of actions to guide them towards a successful transformation and high performance. I am certified in all of the key roles of a Lean-Agile transformation: Scrum Master, Product Owner, Release Train Engineer, change agent (SAFe Program Consultant) and management. In addition to my coaching activities, I spend my free time reading, writing and translating agile-related content.