Where Art Thou Product Owner?
Many moons ago before my agile conversion, while still toiling as a project manager for a large bank, I wanted to purchase my team pizza to celebrate a milestone. To get roughly $200 in pizza, soda, salad and cookies approved I had to obtain seven (7) signatures. The process started with my boss and ended with the Executive VP of our division. Given the time, planning, justification documents and presentations this effort could have easily supported its own project plan and schedule. Ironically, at that same time I had full authority to shift my team from one project to another, simply because that sponsor was yelling louder.
For those keeping score at home, I needed seven people with titles to sign off on a $200 expense but I was free to make million dollar decisions based on how many voicemails an angry sponsor was leaving. If this seems absurd, it is! However, even with the growing popularity of Agile methods, this scene is still playing out today.
Regardless of which Church of Agile you worship, there is one constant that cannot be over looked, the value of the product owner. While the “product owner” may be a team of people vs. the “single throat to choke” their role on the project is indispensible. The purpose of this role is to drive value and make business decisions so the development team can focus on producing working software. In other words, the product owner should be making those million dollar decisions, not some 28-year-old PM.
The truth is, for all of the focus on the “team” within companies transforming to Agile, many are neglecting the equally important role of product owner. Often times the person tagged with this role is allowed to slide from their duties because they are “too busy”.
A recent conversation highlights the critical nature of this problem. I was informed by leadership that the product owner was “simply” too busy to participate in ceremonies and the team needed to figure out on their own what was to be done. I asked a simple question: “Have you ever built a house”? Luckily most in the room had. My next question stunned them, “So, you signed the contract and came back 10 months later for the keys”? The CIO was incredulous; “I was at the construction site three times a day”! Here we had a product owner making time to focus on an important investment. If the product owner inside of a company cannot make a similar commitment, how important is that project (investment) to the organization?
Collectively, we need to ensure the lack of strong product ownership does not sink the agile ship. The team is the heart and soul of a project and is where all the magic happens. The team is not where business decisions are made. Without a product owner making those decisions the team can lose focus and truly opens themselves up criticism if the project goes sideways. Let’s focus on the product owners, help them understand their role, and shift the burden of determining value where it belongs. Then the team can get back to making the magic happen.