I recently worked with a group of practicing product owners, and people who worked closely with product owners. As part of our discussion, I welcomed questions to help guide the conversation. One intriguing question that came up was “what are some paths to product ownership?”
An appropriate answer to that question depends a great deal on the context in which you ask it, so assume the context is a large enterprise that uses product owners in their efforts to develop and maintain their internal products. Given that context, I’m going to rephrase that question to: “How do you become a product owner?”
Within that context, the answer depends on where you’re starting from and where you’d like to end up.
What Does A Product Owner Do?
The endpoint is easy to describe. You want to get into a situation where you are a product owner.
More importantly, you want to get to a position where you are practicing product ownership. You want to focus everyone on outcome over output, build shared understanding, and make decisions.
Now that you know the things a product owner does, let’s take a look at two common paths based on the most common starting points.
Moving from Business Analyst to Product Owner
When someone makes this type of move it’s generally because the IT area is driving the style of engagement with the business units that have a vested interest in the internal product. Either there are multiple people in the business unit that want to have input into decisions with no clear decision maker or there is no one available in the business unit who has sufficient amount of time to spend with the team.
This is the type of move I made, and I talk about that experience in an episode of the Mastering Business Analysis Podcast.
To understand how to move from Business Analyst to Product Owner, let’s take a look at the major aspects of the product owner role.
Outcome over Output
You really can’t consider yourself a good business analyst if you don’t instinctively seek to understand what problem a change to an internal product is trying to solve. You may need to strengthen your ability to identify outcome based metrics and use those to determine the success of a change to a product.
Build Shared Understanding
This is the core of business analysis, so you should be quite strong in this area. You may need to change your perception of analysis being about eliciting and documenting requirements to being about building a shared understanding in order to support informed, timely decisions.
As I noted in my post describing the different types of product people, a key difference between business analysts and product owners is product owners are in a position to make decisions, while business analyst generally aren’t. As a result this is the area you’ll most likely need to focus on the most when making the move from business analyst to product owner.
In some cases, you’ll have the role of product owner, but not the responsibility to make decisions. Instead, you’ll be tasked with facilitating others to make decisions. Because decision making by committee is messy, your primary responsibility is to shield the team from that messiness. It should appear to them as they are getting specific clear direction.
In other cases you’ll be in a better position and will be in a position to make decisions, which may be a new spot for you.
Moving from business person to product owner
The other typical way to move into product ownership is when someone from a business unit fills that role. Generally this is someone who has a great deal of experience with the process that the internal product supports, so they are selected to work directly with the delivery team primarily due to their subject matter expertise and (hopefully) their decision making ability.
Pete Cohen and Chris Bignoux discussed how a new product owner should tackle Agile projects, exploring techniques for informing stakeholders and facilitating decision-making in a presentation for InfoQ.
People who have moved from business person to product owner typically follow the Product Manager and Product Owner model of product ownership.
Outcome over Output
If you are a business person switching to a product owner role, one of the biggest mindset shifts you’ll need to make is to stop leading with solutions and instead lead with problems. The temptation is great whenever you need a change to an internal product to just state exactly what that change should be. It’s actually much more effective to step back a bit and clearly identify the problem you want to solve and discuss that with your team. They will usually have some great ideas on how to solve that problem that makes the best use of the available technology.
And just like a business analyst shifting to agile, you may need to strengthen your ability to identify outcome based metrics and use those to determine the success of a change to a product. The good news is you may have a better idea of what those outcome based metrics should be, because they are probably metrics you were looking at in your process anyway.
Build Shared Understanding
If you come from the business unit you may not be used to describing things in the most effective way for your delivery team. It’s a good idea for you to pick up those analysis skills that are particularly relevant for working in an iterative, incremental fashion. Some effective ways for doing that include:
- Get help from someone on your team. This often results in the Product Manager, Product Owner, and Business Analyst model of product ownership.
- Find a good book focused on analysis techniques applied with an agile mindset. May I humbly suggest Beyond Requirements?
- Get some training on analysis techniques. Again, may I humbly suggest Analysis Techniques for Product Owners?
Depending on your role within the business unit, you may be very familiar and comfortable making decisions. In that case, the thing you need to work on when filing the product owner role are the nuances of making informed and timely decisions. Because you are so familiar with the process and the product you are more susceptible to falling victim to the curse of knowledge and confirmation bias. Make sure you seek outside information from a variety of different perspectives so that your decisions are not just based on how you’ve always done it.
How Do You Select a Product Owner?
You may be in the situation of becoming the product owner for a product. You may instead be in the position of picking a product owner. This post on the Agile Alliance blog discusses things to consider when you find yourself with the need to select a product owner.
Where Do Product Owners Come From?
Scott Ambler weighed in with his observations of what you typically look for in a product owner, explores the available options, and suggests that you need a clear career path if you want to attract good people into the product owner role.
We Don’t Hire Product Owners Here
Rich Mironov shared his experience that software companies typically don’t hire product owners, rather they move them from somewhere else internally. That same sort of thing happens in internal product settings, although it is starting to change.
Need Help Making Decisions?
Whether you’re new to making decisions or need to tune up your decision making prowess, Kupe Kupersmith and I are working on a book for you. We’ve started writing a product person’s guide to effective decision making. We’re looking for people to read drafts of the book and provide feedback. If you’re interested, sign up to receive updates as we get the drafts ready.
Help Your Product Owner Learn the Ropes
One of the big problems that Product Owners from the business run into is that they get so confused about the quirky process your team is using that they don’t get around to doing what a product owner should really focus on. What if you used frameworks as a guide to structure how to work together, instead of as a crutch, or even a prison?