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Product Owner = Strategic Thinking

A New Dimension, a New Thought Process

27 January 2014

Ajay Kabra
QAI India Ltd

We all know that Scrum has three roles: the product owner, ScrumMaster, and the development team. All of them put together give us a Scrum team. Each of these three roles has specific elements and responsibilities to execute in order for the product/release to be successful and to ensure that Scrum practices are well implemented in the given space of things that this team does.

For each role, I have determined one high-level element that would typically define that role and its related responsibilities:
  • Product owner = strategic thinking
  • ScrumMaster = ability to influence
  • Development team = focus on execution

Here I would like to begin by discussing the product owner.

At a high level, we expect the product owner to own the product backlog, prioritize the product backlog items along with the stakeholders, guide the team in discussions of the user stories, provide clarity and answer questions from the team to help them understand the requirements and needs of the product, and so on. Somewhere the focus has become tactical rather than strategic. We are all focusing on the current sprint and trying to make it a success by ensuring that all the right ingredients are in place for the team to deliver.

A good product owner, however, should always have a big-picture view, along with tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is used for the current sprint, whereas the big-picture view is the larger approach, the broad-based thinking that the PO should be involved in to direct the process. The PO should concentrate on these elements:
  • Business acumen
  • Dealing with ambiguity
  • Vision and purpose
Business acumen is keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a business situation in a manner that is likely to lead to a good outcome. In practice, a PO with business acumen has business "sense" or business "smarts." He or she can obtain essential information about a situation, focus on the key objectives, recognize the relevant options available for a solution, select an appropriate course of action, and set in motion an implementation plan to get the job done. When he discovers that changes are required to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, he makes the necessary adjustments and keeps the activity moving forward. He is more often right than wrong in his assessments and choices and is admired by others for both his acumen and business success.

People with strong business acumen use an explicit or implicit business framework to ensure completeness and integration as they assess a business situation. This links to the objectives of key stakeholders, the competitive strategies required for success, the people and activities needed to produce the products and services, and the business processes that support a PO's ability to deal with complexity.

Business acumen also requires a focus on critical factors, an appreciation of the future consequences of actions taken today, and the recognition that future activities require constant monitoring and adjustment when things don't go according to plan. These three ideas are summarized by mindfulness, good sense, and resilience.

Why do we think that a PO should have business acumen? The captain of the Scrum flight should be/would be the PO, as it is under his or her direction that decisions are taken and implemented. As the PO owns the return on investment (ROI), it is important that she has the relevant business acumen to make decisions; influence decisions at the higher management level; and ensure that all the necessary approvals with respect to budgets, resources, and infrastructure are provided to the development team.

Understanding the MMF (minimum marketable feature) helps the PO prioritize the product backlog items. It guides the PO in the market expectation for the product, what the USP (unique selling proposition) of the product would be, and how the features of the product have to be conceived to provide a high level of ROI to the system.

It is important for the PO to understand where and when tunnel vision should be applied and how a big-picture view should be used and drilled into a tunnel vision.

Next is dealing with ambiguity. What does this mean? As a product owner, one would need to able to do the following:
  • Tolerate and manage change effectively
  • Shift gears/change course quickly and easily
  • Decide and act without having the total picture
  • Tolerate situations where things are up in the air
  • Tolerate and be comfortable with risk and uncertainty
Leadership, ambiguity, and resilience are all important here. As a PO, not only do you have to deal with ambiguity but you also have to be resilient and, more important, demonstrate and exemplify resilience to the team and the organization. The two go hand in hand.

Resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back, and the competencies are generally something like:
  • The ability to deal effectively with pressure and stress
  • The ability to come back after disappointment or setbacks
  • The ability to remain optimistic and positive in uncertain, new, or complex situations
  • The ability to show and maintain strong leadership in uncertain situations
The PO may feel uncertain but must be able to show to others that he is strong enough and knows what he's doing. These others, in turn, are also dealing with uncertainty and, probably, the same ambiguous situation, although from another angle. The PO needs to be sure-footed and make others feel that they are in safe hands.

On this front, the PO's role becomes important with respect to the cancellation or termination of a sprint or redefining priorities or when to schedule a formal release to the market/users/production. In such situations, it is expected that the PO will have a clear head and a high level of clarity for making adequate and correct decisions, as they will in turn impact the system.

Last but certainly not least, the PO must have vision and purpose. The PO must be able to answer the question, "Why are we developing this product?" On the mission statement, the PO would also have the ownership to answer the question, "How will we achieve this?" The PO has the purpose of enhancing the overall quality of the product and the well-being of the team that works on the product.

Strategic planning is an important component of this, and change is an essential component of strategic thinking and planning. This involves a plan to move the organization or program forward to create or change something. The mission and vision statements will be important to help communicate the goals of the plan to the team and other stakeholders. The PO should emphasize the current mission statement to team, which clarifies the purpose and the primary, measurable objectives of the product's success. The mission statement is meant for the team and other stakeholders.

Strategic plans may involve changing the mission statement to reflect a new direction of the product. Highlighting the benefits of the change and minimizing confusion will help the team and the stakeholders buy into the change.

In other articles, I will focus on the ScrumMaster and the development team.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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