Empowering Your Product Owner

Many people interchange the title “Product Owner” with “Product Manager,” but the roles can be very different. In some organizations, the Product Owner has responsibility for working with a team focused on one product and the Product Manager is looking at a number of related products at a higher level, and making decisions around governance of those products.

In some cases, however, one person can be both a Product Owner and Product Manager since these two roles overlap. As Melissa Perri wrote in her blog in 2019, “Product Owner is a role you play on a scrum team. Product Manager is the job.”

For the remainder of this article, we will discuss this combined role and why organizations need to focus on empowering this role in order for their people (and their products) to be successful.

Why is empowerment so important?

Product Owner diagramIf the Product Owner (PO) is expected to be accountable for product(s) but has limited decision-making power, no funding access, no authority to make decisions without stakeholders and leadership calling the shots, how can they be successful? That lack of authority would cause a lot of frustration and burn out. Like swimming upstream against the current, they would repeatedly try to move forward and do the right thing for customers and the product, only to have the organization push back on them constantly.

The most successful (and happiest) product people work for organizations and leaders who understand how important empowerment is to their overall success. These organizations give them the freedom to spread their wings and “test and learn,” which is one of the main tenets of working in an Agile fashion.

But, this empowerment cannot be a blank check so to speak—there needs to be some oversight from the person who has responsibility for the product family to ensure that the work each team is doing is aligned toward the common goals of the organization.

How to empower the Product Owner

So, let’s talk about what Product Owner empowerment means. How can an organization ensure that the Product Owners have what they need to be successful?

Foster collaboration

The PO must collaborate with the team, peers, stakeholders and leadership to define prioritization of the backlog based on a number of inputs.

Many times this is where organizations struggle. Decisions on what to work on and when have been handed down to the PO from others, rather than allowing them making the decisions based on their research and customer feedback.

This can cause lack of ownership, lack of consistent value delivery, competing requirements, unnecessary dependencies, and lower quality. And, it can lead to uncertainty within the product teams as the members aren’t sure who is providing direction or whether what they are working on will change suddenly based on other decision makers.

There may be times when managerial decisions or strategic priorities override what the team is working on, but if this happens, the PO and the team should receive clear communication and insight into the reasoning behind the decisions. These overrides should be the exception rather than the rule. In this scenario, the PO should also have a voice in order to protect the vision of the product or feature.

Have the PO’s back

Product Owners need to feel confident that they have the backing of the organization to take on this role and the support to do it well.

For Product Owners to be successful in their roles, leadership must demonstrate that they know the person is right for the job and empower them to do it. Many times this is easier said than done—it can require organizations to take a hard look at their current thinking around structure as well as a shift away from hierarchical decision making. While uncomfortable at times, when a PO is empowered, their team has a strong direction and can focus on the most important features of the product.

It is also critical that the individual be able to spend most of his or her time being the PO, freeing them from other duties that may have previously been their responsibility. As noted above, being a PO is a large responsibility and making them focus on other distracting work can lead to confusion around priorities as well as burn out.

Support access to the customer and stakeholders

Ensure that the Product Owner has access and authority to communicate with stakeholders and customers.

Having firsthand access to customer feedback is critical to inform decisions around how to make the product better for them.

In some cases, Sales can be very protective of the customers and block the PO’s ability to go talk to them. They may receive (unintentionally) biased, filtered feedback. This can result in teams building features and enhancements for a product that no user or customer wants or ends up using because sales “knew” that’s what they wanted.

Fund product teams, not projects

Picture this – a scrum team is excited to begin their product roadmap. They determine an approach to their product with the features they feel are most important, based on their understanding of what will deliver the most value to their customers. But, after several releases, they realize features Y and Z are no longer valuable as market conditions have changed.

It’s always important for the PO to inform others about the changes they are making, especially if it could impact the direction of the product or influence other products within the family. However, in some organizations, that decision to pivot would need to go all the way up to executive leadership or in some cases, the PMO (more on them later). In other scenarios, the Product Manager or the PMO has oversight of the funding, so the PO has to “sell” this change in direction instead of being able to make the decisions based on the data and user feedback they have.

Funding is one of the main challenges Product Owners experience. If an organization decides to fund annually, the PO isn’t able to effectively reallocate the team’s efforts based on learnings. This will set up the team to fail and the product will fail as well. Instead, give the PO funding for their teams, not for individual projects. Allow them to see what is working and what isn’t and give them the ability to pivot as needed.

Clarify the PO’s role within the PMO

Lack of role clarity with the PMO undermines the effectiveness of the Product Owner.

In many organizations, the PMO is responsible for budget tracking, sharing visibility to senior leaders across products, and connecting the dots. This can become a challenge if they don’t include the PO in conversations or decisions that directly impact their product.

A Real Life Example

In one of our client organizations, there was a large meeting to determine budgeting for an overall program. Product Managers were present but not all of them understood work priority and shifts in the market and user base that would necessitate changes in funding. As a result, they deprioritized one product and reallocated half of the team to other product teams—even though the market research indicated a rapidly changing product landscape. While a seat at the table is critical, PO empowerment is also important so they can pivot or shift focus to adapt to these types of changes. The backlog could be reprioritized and story points re-evaluated to determine what would be possible to support the product in the current environment.

Because they didn’t include the PO’s knowledge and the product lacked organizational support, she didn’t reallocate the backlog, the product failed and, when they fell behind, senior leadership ultimately sunset it. The organization missed out on a significant opportunity to increase market share.

In Conclusion

So what does this boil down to? The Scrum Guide puts it well:

For the Product Owner to succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions.

This can be uncomfortable at first, but if the PO is ultimately responsible for the results of the product in the marketplace, empowering them to make decisions and have the autonomy to change course for their team when necessary while communicating the changes to other impacted or interested parties. This reinforces to the team that they can trust the Product Owner as the decision maker and they won’t worry that he or she can be overruled. That leads to a happier, more productive team and better business outcomes.

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Susan Dellio, Product Coach
Susan Dellio, Product Coach