Most books that claim to be for product owner tend to focus primarily on describing Scrum to product people which tends to lead people to believe that being a product owner is nothing more than managing the backlog. There’s more to the role than that, so I always find it refreshing when someone takes a different approach to writing about product ownership.
Reading Product Mastery: From Good to Great Product Ownership* by Geoff Watts was definitely refreshing. Geoff added a much needed perspective to the activity of product ownership by focusing on what traits it takes to go from a good product owner to a great product owner. He described those traits in the form of an acronym: DRIVEN. The traits are:
I’ve summarized Geoff’s main points and added some pointers to content on KBPMedia below. I encourage you to get Product Mastery* and read it cover to cover. It’s got a lot of great stuff in it.
In the description of each trait, the bold italics text is Geoff’s short description of the trait.
“Willing and able to make decisions with incomplete information, and to allow others to make decisions too”
I’ve always thought decision making is an important aspect of decision making. It is, afterall, one of the habits of highly effective product people.
Geoff’s main point is that as a product owner you need to be able to make decisions, but you also need to make sure that your team practices effective decision making.
Your decision making is effective when the right person makes an informed decision at the right time. There will be times when it’s clear you have enough information to make a decision. At other times you have to be willing to make safe to fail bets where it’s not possible to have all the information you’d like, but you need to make a decision.
Geoff also stressed the importance of managing stakeholders, either when one of those stakeholders is the right decision maker, or to get those stakeholder to buy in to the decisions that you make.
“Maintaining relentless drive to maximize value and minimize risk while staying focused on the vision”
This choice of words may have raised a few eyebrows. I don’t think Geoff was suggesting that you should be a cruel product owner (although some teams or stakeholders probably think their product owner is a tyrant at times.)
Geoff suggests that you should have a maniacal focus on delivering outcome over output throughout the course of your efforts.
You need to have the courage to say “no” to product backlog items that do not meet your decision filters and help you realize your desired outcome. It’s important to have courage, it’s also important to find a way to say “no” that doesn’t get you fired.
You need to have a fanatical devotion to your outcome, but you should be willing to change the outputs you deliver to accomplish that outcome when assumptions you made prove false.
You need strong opinions weakly held.
“Cultivating a voracious appetite to know the most possible about your product’s domain while being prepared to act with incomplete information”
You need to be ruthless about your outcome. You also need to be ruthless about testing your assumptions so that you can be as informed as possible.
Of course as mentioned above, you want to know as much as you can about your domain, but you also have to accept the fact that you’re not going to know everything.
Always seek to test your assumptions. Always be aware of your cognitive biases. Always seek out different perspectives.
“Being responsive to changing circumstances, both in terms of product development techniques and also leadership style”
Short feedback cycles definitely help you learn. In order for that learning to be useful, you also need to be willing to change in response to what you learn. You need to be versatile.
You need to be able to adjust to your team, your product, and your environment.
Operating according to values and principles you try to operate to and adjust to your environment is pragmatic. Quoting the Scrum Guide chapter and verse and saying “that’s not agile” is dogmatic.
You want to be pragmatic.
This also means that You should be open to different perspectives. You need to remember that you don’t know everything. I think Geoff said it best: “Tell your side of the story as a story rather than a fact.” (pg. 158)
“Creating a sense of shared ownership amongst all stakeholders and with you on the journey”
You need to be decisive in order to make sure decisions get made.
You need to be ruthless in your focus on outcome over output.
And you need to be empowering in order to build shared understanding.
Building shared understanding means that you truly seek to make sure your team understand the problem you are trying to solve and jointly determine the solution you are going to deliver to solve it.
You don’t identify and describe product backlog items for the purpose of documenting requirements. You identify and describe product backlog items to supplement your conversations and bring clarity to your team.
Become part of the team, establish trust and then remember that product ownership is a team sport.
The best way to bring clarity and understanding is to involve everyone in the learning and discovery. Be intentional about your relationship with other team members and involve them when you stock and refine the backlog.
“Having faith in one’s vision while also being open to feedback and change”
When you focus on outcome, you don’t have to deliver every single output.
You still need to work through different stakeholder perspectives to get to a resolution that delivers the desired outcome. Even though you work with all your different stakeholders, you don’t have to deliver all the outputs they request. That means you won’t please everyone, and that’s ok.
When you focus on outcome, you have to balance feasibility, usability and viability to build the right product in the right way at the right time.
Be a DRIVEN product owner
At several places in Product Mastery, Geoff contrasts the behaviors of a good product owner with those of a great product owner. Great product owners basically live the traits described above and let those guide their actions more so than any framework, practices, or techniques.
If you want to be a great product owner, or great product product person in general, you’ll be well served to live these traits.
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