In a business climate where downturns can quickly turn enterprises into mere footnotes of history, the role of a Product Owner (PO) isn't just important—it's absolutely critical. Great product ownership has the potential to transform companies, making them almost invincible, even when economic skies are dark. But how does this happen? And what exactly makes a great Product Owner in these times of adversity? The secret sauce, I propose, boils down to three Vs: Vision, Value, and Validation.
Vision: The Guiding Light
Great Product Owners don't just adapt to changes; they anticipate them. They have a vision that not only aligns with the company’s goals but also adapts to market realities. Visionary Product Owners read between the lines of market trends, customer feedback, and economic forecasts. During a downturn, this skill becomes particularly important as every business move is fraught with risks.
A clear vision provides direction, helping teams prioritise their activities and focus their energies where it matters the most. A PO’s vision serves as a guidepost, a constant reminder of what needs to be achieved in the long term, even when short-term obstacles arise. It allows the team to pivot when required without losing sight of the endgame.
Value: The Name of the Game
In a downturn, consumers become hyper-sensitive to value. With tightened budgets and reduced spending power, every dollar spent is scrutinised for its worth. A great Product Owner understands this shift and takes the lead in providing better value propositions than competitors.
To accomplish this, savvy Product Owners can employ a series of techniques:
- Competitive Analysis: Understanding what competitors offer helps POs aim higher.
- Customer Feedback Loops: Direct input from customers can reveal what they consider valuable.
- Incremental Development: A focus on delivering small but significant changes allows the team to constantly add value while being nimble.
These techniques are not just about reducing prices or offering more features. Value could mean better customer service, faster delivery, improved usability, or even brand trust. In a downturn, a great PO is a value detective, seeking out every opportunity to deliver more for less.
Validation: Proving Worth through Data
In good times, companies can afford a few missteps. However, in a downturn, there’s little room for error. This is where validation comes in. A great Product Owner knows that every decision must be backed by data and validated through metrics. Whether it’s A/B testing a new feature or analysing customer usage patterns, a focus on validation ensures that the product is meeting its objectives and, most importantly, delivering value to the users.
Validation offers another advantage—it makes the product invincible to internal biases and assumptions. By relying on data and facts, Product Owners can make objective decisions that serve the larger goals of resilience and long-term success.
Examples of Failed Product Ownership: Losing Touch with the Market
Before delving into the shining examples of invincible companies, it's instructive to examine the other side of the coin: instances where poor product ownership led to an erosion of market share or even the demise of a once-thriving business.
The root cause of such failures often lies in a loss of connection with the market—precisely the area where a Product Owner should excel.
Kodak: Ignoring Digital Revolution
For Kodak, a lack of vision in product ownership proved fatal. Despite pioneering digital technology, Kodak's inability to pivot from film-based photography to digital saw the company filing for bankruptcy in 2012. Here, the product owners missed validating the future of digital media and focused too heavily on their existing, albeit lucrative, film business.
BlackBerry: Stagnation in Innovation
BlackBerry, the once-dominant smartphone maker, lost its grip on the market due to a failure to deliver continued value. When touchscreens and apps revolutionised smartphones, BlackBerry stuck with its traditional keyboard design and proprietary operating system. Their product owners failed to adapt and failed to bring forth new value propositions, and the company ultimately lost relevance.
Yahoo!: A Series of Missed Opportunities
Yahoo! provides a fascinating case study in what can go wrong when product ownership lacks both vision and validation. Yahoo! missed multiple opportunities to acquire companies like Google and Facebook in their nascent stages and was slow to adapt to the shifting focus from web portals to search engines and social media. In its day, Yahoo! was an internet behemoth, but a failure to validate new market trends and adapt led to its decline.
In each of these cautionary tales, you'll find gaps in Vision, Value, and Validation. Product Owners either missed identifying evolving market trends, failed to offer compelling value compared to competitors, or were sluggish in validating their ideas against reality. And as these examples show, the result is rarely a happy one. Businesses that lose touch with the market, especially during downturns, run the risk of becoming obsolete, overshadowed by competitors who navigate challenges more adeptly.
The Invincible Company: Redefining Resilience and Excellence
In the lexicon of business strategy, the term "Invincible Company" holds a specific meaning. According to Strategyzer, an invincible company is one that constantly reinvents itself. These companies don't just adapt to market changes; they lead the market changes. They maintain a portfolio of existing businesses while simultaneously exploring a pipeline of potential new opportunities. Simply put, invincible companies do not rest on their laurels; they are always prepared for the future.
Great product owners play a critical role in creating and maintaining this state of invincibility. Through Vision, Value, and Validation, they drive continuous improvement and sustainable growth. They play a pivotal role in both maintaining the existing portfolio and exploring new frontiers. Their work sets the stage for organisational agility, making it possible for the company to pivot quickly in response to market demands and opportunities.
Examples of Invincible Companies
To get a better grasp of this concept, let’s look at some companies often considered 'invincible':
Amazon: Books and Beyond
Started as an online bookstore, Amazon now dominates multiple sectors, from retail to cloud computing, largely due to its relentless focus on customer value and validated learning. Amazon isn't afraid to experiment; many of its new business lines, like AWS, came from bold visions that were meticulously validated.
Apple: Luxury Digital Products
Not just a technology company, Apple is a design, luxury, and lifestyle brand. Despite the economic ups and downs, Apple has retained its market leadership through constant innovation and a steadfast focus on delivering unparalleled value through its ecosystem.
Netflix: Leading Digital Entertainment
What started as a DVD rental service transitioned into a streaming giant and later into a content creator. Netflix's ability to foresee market shifts and adapt accordingly is a testament to its invincibility.
Microsoft: Big and Fast
Once known primarily for its clunky operating system and Office software, Microsoft has successfully diversified into various domains like cloud computing with Azure, professional networking with LinkedIn, and more. Each of these moves reflects a vision validated with market demands and a high focus on delivering value.
In each of these examples, you can see the traits of great product ownership in action. These companies have not just survived downturns but thrived through them, continually delivering value that meets or exceeds customer expectations and validating those offerings through continuous feedback loops.
Great product ownership isn't a nice-to-have; it's a must-have, particularly in economic downturns. Savvy Product Owners stay in touch with market conditions and are obsessed with delivering more to their customers than you can shake a stick at.
Building capable, proactive Product Owners who focus on the three tenets of Vision, Value, and Validation can help your company navigate through turbulent times, possibly even turning them into periods of significant opportunity and growth. As we've seen, companies that excel in these areas not only weather storms but emerge stronger, more agile, and yes, more invincible.
Looking for more valuable insights? Join our Fractal Systems mailing list and receive exclusive weekly content on all things Agile.