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Exploring Pitfalls of Product Ownership- PartI

May 3, 2017

"People don't buy products, they buy feelings. People buy products that they associate with their identity - Tony Robbins"

Agility is important to an organization and the path to agility becomes more clear by understanding the purpose of pursuing agility. The product owner role is key in increasing the benefits an organization can gain in their path to agility.

According to one of the online surveys conducted by Forrester in 2015, 49% respondents said that business product owners without the proper skill sets are one of the biggest impediments to successful Agile adoption. Understanding the pitfalls of Product Ownership can help remove this impediment and adopt the product mindset.

This is my small attempt to share a few of the pitfalls of product ownership that I've come across in my time both as a product owner and as a coach to other product owners.

  1. No, or Unclear, Product Vision: Have you ever been on a Scrum Team where people have no clue as to why they are building the product? There is a product backlog, but the development team loses their connection with the company's larger vision. Sound familiar? This is a very common pitfall of Product Ownership. Without a solid vision, people perish. An effective product vision is like a True North that helps people move toward the idea of ownership over a product and aligns them with stakeholders and customers. There are many tools that can help establish a product vision, like Product Box (by Innovation Games), Elevator Pitch, etc.

  2. Not Able to Communicate Vision Effectively: If you ever get to work with great product owners, ask them what they think the key skills are for ensuring a product's success - the answer will be passion and communication. In my experience, when I ask development teams about their product vision, I see blank faces; or, sometimes I get lucky and hear different versions of the vision from different development team members. This led me to the conclusion that a product owner's ability to communicate the vision is key, and, conversely, not being able to communicate the vision effectively is a common pitfall.

  3. There Is No Single Product Owner for One Product: Not having a single person who has a mandate on making decisions is a big pitfall that leaves many problems unsolved. For example, who has the final say during disagreements over priorities? Who defines the value of the product? Who decides how to order and organize the product backlog? And so on. One of the rules of Scrum is that the product owner is a single person, not a committee. Just like in Highlander, "There can be only one."

  4. Pushing Development Team to Trade Quality for Speed: I have seen many product owners focussing only on getting more and more new features and paying no, or very little, attention to Technical Quality. If a product owner does not give keen attention to keeping the product clean and debt-free, the development team spends a lot of time struggling with fixing existing issues, increasing the total cost of ownership. Though the development team is accountable for quality and delivering value, the product owner,  however, is the value maximizer and accountable for the product's success. A product owner who does not pay attention to technical quality could lead to big pitfalls in development.

  5. The Fallacy That the Iron Triangle Is a Measure of Value: Believing that it is possible to deliver on time, under budget, and within scope, and yet still be successful - this is what I've here termed, the Iron Triangle. This, in turn, leads to another fallacy that we need to analyze exhaustively, have a big upfront design, and detail out all requirements upfront. Unfortunately, many organizations still see the Iron Triangle as the only way of measuring impact and success. Remembering that value in itself is difficult to quantify and is an assumption until it is validated by the marketplace helps the product owner focus on defining and measuring value. Gunther Verheyen has written a great blog article on this, which I found very useful and worth exploring to gain more insights on measuring value. 

Being aware of such pitfalls helps one to play the product owner role effectively and to develop successful products using Scrum. It is great if the product owner is an entrepreneur of the product and a real owner of the product. And for this to happen, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions. 

I am sure that you have witnessed some other pitfalls of product ownership, and now it's my turn to hear from you.

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