March 28, 2022

Four types of Product Owners and how to deal with them

Recently I had an epiphany, realising that most of my writing has been for Product Owners and how to they should interact with the environment, but what about how to interact with Product Owners? What are some characteristics and traits you may encounter as a stakeholder, manager or leader of a Product Owner.

Disclaimer: “All models are wrong, some are useful”

People and interactions are immensely complex and though these four types hopefully help you to get better interaction, please remember that it is just a model, no substitute for doing your own discovery. With that disclaimer out of the way lets look at four types of Product Owners:

Type 1: The Chameleon

The Chameleon has headed the lesson of Bruce Lee and is truly “like water, my friend.” Chameleon’s quickly adapt to changing environments, expectations or conditions. They tend have a high empathic “antenna” to read what role best fits the situation.

A common pitfall for Chameleons is that each stakeholder sees a different type of person. Leaders find it hard to coach Chameleons because it is hard to find the “real” person. They don’t run into many problems because they tend to embrace others ideas and solve issues for stakeholders with little regard for their own health or Product Vision.

Another aspect of Chameleons is that they are hard to spot. They tend to see and solve problems before they escallate. Often they work hard and have meticulous discipline that allows them to manually correct any shortcomings in the product or process without (successfully) fixing the root-cause.

“Sometime’s I feel like I’m the company’s Google” a Product Owner complained, resulting in her being pulled in each and every meeting, because she was a know-it-all in the positive way. Resulting in less time for focus on her own product and team.

Some tips for dealing with a Chameleon:

  • Realise that they will probably say yes if they think the question is important. Start with more empathic questions to bring them to safe place. Explore what truly gives them energy and makes them smile. Figure out if they have had enough time for a break, before you ask that “one more thing”
  • Ask them what they have done lately. Probably rephrase that less judgemental ;-) Explore what they have on their plate, what successes they have achieved. Help them to find a stage for that and get acknowledgement.
  • Expore what the latest challenges they have discovered lately. Chameleons often know, hear and process problems long before they pop on your radar. Using a Chameleon for early detection is great, but don’t burn them by having them resolve those themselves. A great followup question would be: “who, apart from yourself, would be the best person to tackle that problem.”

Type 2: The Forecaster

Whether you call them visionary, dreamer, forecaster, living in a fantasy or just Product Owner, we all know someone that fits the description.

What is great about working with a forecaster is that they can already see the contours of the solution where the rest is still focussing on making the problem bigger. If forecasters have mastered skills like storytelling and visualisation they tend to be able to rally a team behind their ideas and take them on a path to the future.

Despite the fact they seem to be able see the future, they often fail to see the conditions and problems that may cause problems along the way. Most businesses take many iterations to “to get it right” often seriously taxing the patience of a forecaster.

Be careful to let forecasters live completely in the future, yet don’t ignore their superpower either. When building products, discuss with the forecaster how they want to spend their budget and energy. Often the path towards the vision must be traveled while also keeping the lights on, find a balance.

As a stakeholder you may need to spend a more than normal amount of time with a forecaster to really understand what they are driving at. Think of it as finishing a puzzle, where both hold pieces but the forecaster also has the image of the finished product.

Some tips for dealing with a forecaster:

  • Make sure you have regular contact with a forecaster. Keep connecting the vision back to the day-to-day work.
  • Be gentle on change. Typically the plans change frequently but the dot on the horizon does not. Check that we are making progress though, gradatim ferociter!
  • Create space for out-of-the-box thinking, like hackatons, design sprints or skunkworks to provide the forecaster with a stage to speak out and dazzle the rest.

“I want you to close your eyes and jump. You are now in fantasy land, a land in which everything is possible. Tell me how would you solve our current problem if there are no limitations.” — A great opening for a forecaster by Paul Immerzeel.

Type 3: The Researcher

Researchers start to shine in the light of complex problems. They have an internal drive to get to the bottom of things and instantly loose their intrest once they solution has been arrived at.

Researcher Product Owner are driven by questions like: “Why is that?” and “Why does this work?” They tend to be quite entrepreneurial and often end up creating new products that bring in millions of new revenue or cost savings.

“He’s an unguided missile, useful, but unpredictable”

The drawback is that they tend to jump from problem to problem without implementing the whole solution. They struggle leading teams because they can’t keep up with the shifting insights and stakeholders wonder when something gets shipped at all.

Another aspect of researchers is that they tend to be “thinkers.” It is not uncommon for researchers to be perceived to be lazy, inattentive or absent. Some researchers are know to stare out a window for hours or days before coming up with a brilliant insight. A process often disrupted by coworkers since they didn’t “look busy.”

Avoid pressuring researchers in being “productive” meaning in terms of output. If they accommodate to that utilisation trap they often quit their jobs out of pure boredom. Another risk is that they are so good in spotting problems and improvement opportunities that they become oblivious to what is actually going well.

When dealing with a researcher:

  • Put them on the right products. Some products are in what I call the “Nike” state. Meaning you should “just do it” and not overthink it. There are not the products you are looking for.
  • Pair researchers with builders and drivers. Drivers will at some point get nervous and say something like: “enough research for now, lets build something, so that we may learn.” Though the thinking may not stop at that point, we do start delivering.
  • Balance detecting what is wrong with the product and what is great about the product. Don’t look just at churn and why people leave, but also ask about how often people recommend us and what they typically mention.
  • Acknowledge “thinking time” but also ask for “delivery time.” E.g. if you are doing Scrum, avoid missing or delaying Sprint Planning because the thoughts haven’t ironed out all details and make sure there is time to dream.
  • Advice researchers to label their Wednesday afternoon “Product Research” in their calendar. This creates a container for “thinking time”

Type 4: The Warrior

The warrior is the conscience of the organisation, the moral compass, whistleblower. As with true martial artist, they “feel” and move on injustice or something that is simply “wrong”, without being able to rationalise it first.

The warrior can have strong emotions around these topics and are often passionate employees that can be quite vocal. They run into conflicts more often than usually and certainly more than the chamelon. These conflicts are not always external, warriors often carry an emotional burden that also keeps them conflicted when not at work. Their burn-out ratio is high.

The warrior values doing the right thing, even if that is unpopular, they fight for what is right. Verbally strong warriors are able to rally people behind their way of thinking and even make them join the fight. That wars typically have innocent bystanders and more fallout than expected is something the warrior is insensitive to, but in the end will have to live with the result.

The problem with warriors is that they may lose track of the bigger picture. Correcting a problem that is simply wrong or a disadvantage some stakeholder or user is important, but focussing all energy at this occurrence takes the focus away from other opportunities that may yield better results.

Warriors tend to unsheathe their swords and attack the dragon even knowing they cannot possible win the battle, but find themselves unable to stop themselves. It is great to have warriors on your team, but they can also bring the whole company down on you.

Some tips on dealing with warriors:

  • You can help warriors to slice the dragon. Collaborate with them on what is the most important thing to to focus on right now. This is also an excellent way to guide them in revealing what their circle of influence and circle of control is.
  • Show warriors the gentle way of influence. Fighting resistance with brute force, generates more resistance. By aligning their goals or reformulating them so that they align more with the goals of stakeholders you are bending the reed, not breaking it.
  • Focus on the long game and guide the them along the longer path. “yes we she should rebuilt the entire return handling functionality, because it looks like we actively hate our customers, but what it the first thing we could do that would make them doubt that?”
  • Ask questions, what is the intent? what is your ulterior motive? calm the fire to discover what drives the warrior. Then explore what the sanest and most sustainable course of action is. Reveal progress along that route, in the end the route to the goal is flexible, especially when working with humans.
  • Use warriors to fight dragons. There are occasions when you are faced with tough situations, where you really need someone to stand their ground. Often when launching new products, especially those who use a different business model, the corporate anti-bodies will rise up and try to weed out the misfit and you will be happy if you have a warrior to stand his or her ground.

Here you go, four types of Product Owners that you may have to work, lead, cooperate or just deal with. If you find this article useful, leave a note. If you didn’t or disagree, also leave a note. (You get the idea, something about validation and feedback ;-)