Product Owner Empowerment

Published on 10th January 2013

Playing the product owner role can be challenging: It requires the authority to say no to ideas, request, and feedback in order to achieve product success, as I explain in this article.

An individual truly owns a product if the person has the right to say no. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to promote a negative mind-set or can’t-do attitude. But as Steve Jobs said: “Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying no to all but the most crucial features.” If we take on every idea or feature request, we are likely to end up with a feature soup, bloated product that is expensive to develop and that provides a poor user experience.

In Scrum, feedback from users and stakeholders is regularly used to develop the right product, as the following picture shows:

Product Owner Empowerment

In the picture above, the team creates a product increment. Feedback is then obtained by exposing the increment to the right people. These include users and customers as well as internal stakeholders such as representatives from marketing and sales. Demoing or releasing the increment results in new ideas or requirements. Sometimes powerful stakeholders such as a management sponsor or customer request new features based on what they have seen.

Any constructive feedback is good feedback and should be welcome, but not all feedback is helpful and relevant. It’s the job of the people creating the product to carefully analyse the feedback and make that decision. Feedback is irrelevant when the data quality is poor, for instance, if a piece of information is unclear or ambiguous, or if the feedback is not helpful to reach the vision or release goal. If that’s the case, the feedback or request should be disregarded, symbolised by putting it in the trashcan in the picture above.

Disregarding feedback implies the right to say no. It may mean telling a customer that a feature request will not be fulfilled, at least not in the near future, or letting a powerfulstakeholder know that her idea cannot be taken on board. Being empowered to push back, to filter and select, puts the product owner in control. It allows the Scrum team to move fast, try out new ideas, and make quick decisions. But it also implies being responsible for making the product a success: developing a product that does a great job for its users and the company.

If you feel that you are not in a position to say no and reject ideas, feedback, and requests, then reflect on the causes. It is due to the organisation’s lack of understanding of how product management works, and what the authority and responsibilities are? Do you miss trust and support from the stakeholders due to a lack of expertise or people skills? Or have you possibly been too accommodating in the past trying to please everyone?

In the first case, your ScrumMaster may be able to help you educate the stakeholders and establish an effective product management organisation. In the second case, consider increasing your product management and people skills. In the third case, be courageous and bring to mind the fact that as the product owner, you must make tough decisions and you cannot please everyone without running the risk of making weak compromises. At the same time, take a real interest in the people who provide feedback and empathise with them. Explain to the indivduals why you cannot fulfill a request or implement an idea. This will make it easier for them to accept your decision.

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