August 27, 2021

The 2 Best Product Owners I Ever Worked With – The Empowered Product Owner

TheScrumMaster.co.ukA few years back I wrote 2 popular posts that talked about the best Scrum Masters I ever worked with. This time around I am going to share some stories about the best Product Owners I have encountered.

The first Product Owner, let’s call him Matthew, was a Senior Editor for a well known UK newspaper. He was highly experienced, well respected and had been very successful in helping steer the newspaper for many years. Unfortunately, he was also short on patience, had a fierce temper and was widely feared by those who worked for him. Think J Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man and you have Matthew.

Sales of the print-based newspaper and revenue from advertising were rapidly declining. The newspaper had started down a long path to “embrace digital”. For the first few years, the organisation appointed relatively junior people to oversee their new website and did not seem to care too much about it. I think the management team believed that print-based sales and advertising would recover and the “digital thing” would be a passing fad. They were wrong!

Eventually, the website started to make real money and at the same time, the rate of decline around the newspaper continued. Classified and advertising spend moved rapidly and increasingly online.

One day the management team of the newspaper realised they had to start taking the website seriously. They appointed Matthew to run it. Matthew had no experience with websites or software development.

My first interactions with Matthew were challenging. He would ask my team to develop something new for the website. Often the work would take a week or more to complete, but Matthew would always demand it by 21:00 the same day, regardless of whether this was realistic or not.

Matthew initially viewed the website team as incompetent as we were unable to deliver to the schedule he expected. He also told us this regularly and morale was low as a result.

Matthew came from a newspaper background where ideas that emerged could be transformed into words and pictures on a page on the same day. He viewed the website as being like a newspaper on a computer and could not understand how anything could possibly take longer than a day to complete.

This left me with the unenviable task of resetting his expectations and helping him understand the nature of software development. An enterprise website serving tens of millions of people per day and built with hundreds of dependant systems did not work the same way as a print-based newspaper created with a desktop publishing system.

Over time, as we started to fulfil Matthews requests and deliver regular value, we built some trust with him. Along the way, we learnt more about the different worlds we came from and started to create new more realistic expectations about what was possible.

This new understanding was supported by the adoption of Scrum. We worked in short 1 week Sprints which meant we showed valuable and working improvements to the website every week. Matthew liked this as he felt it was at least in some way closer to the schedule he was used to. As we adopted Scrum, Matthew became our Product Owner.

Over time Matthew became incredibly effective as our Product Owner and the website went from strength to strength under his guidance. Looking back I can identify 5 key factors that contributed to this success, despite our difficult start:

Empowered

Matthew was empowered, trusted and supported as a Product Owner by the organisation. His vision, strategy and decisions were respected. He had built trust in earlier roles at the newspaper and this carried through into his new role, despite his inexperience with digital products. As we worked in short Sprints and released changes frequently, the impact of his decisions was visible quickly for interested stakeholders which helped maintain that trust.

Vision

Matthew had a clear vision of what the product should be and do. He would talk about the vision often. Eventually, even the people that initially failed to grasp his direction came on board.

Customer First

Matthew understood what his customers wanted and made sure to give them exactly that. As he learned more about technology and how it could help him better understand his customers, he became even more focused on this. Once he learnt how to use Google Analytics so he could see what people were doing on the website in real-time, he became obsessed with it. Things that were working were supported and extended. Things that proved unpopular were dropped quickly in favour of new more valuable initiatives.

Decision Maker

Matthew was not afraid to say no to stakeholders. He had a diverse group to work with and some had goals that were in direct opposition to his own. Despite this, Matthew would balance the needs of these different groups. His primary concern was to create great content to attract visitors. However, he knew that advertising was necessary to pay the bills so he would give space and attention to the revenue-generating ideas that would have an impact.

Demanding

Matthew expected commitment, quality and hard work from those around him. This was often exhausting but did serve to motivate people. It proved challenging for the Scrum Master who’s role was in part to support the people involved, but that is a story for another time….

Matthews efforts ultimately paid off. The product was massively successful with 100’s of millions of visitors which continued to increase by huge amounts each year. I doubt this would have been possible without Matthew maximising the value of the product in his particular way.

Matthew was an effective Product Owner because he was trusted and empowered by the organisation. He used the power he had to deliver regular value which ensured he maintained the trust he had built and his power base.

In my next post, I will share the story of Gerry, another excellent but very different type of Product Owner.

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Simon KneafseyHi, my name is Simon Kneafsey and I am a Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org & TheScrumMaster.co.uk. I am on a mission to simplify Scrum for a million people. I have helped over 10,000 people so far and I can help you too.

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