BeanStalk

The impact of a good Product Owner is evident – there is clarity of vision and an all-around alignment of efforts focused on value delivery. However, breaking down the skills needed for great Product Owners is not easy as so much of the role depends on context. A Product Owner in a startup who is getting ready to launch the first version of an app needs a very different set of skills to be successful than a Product Owner leading the Homebanking app team in a large retail bank.

 

Sure, the foundational knowledge they would need about agility and product owner tools would be similar, but once they’ve acquired those skills, what’s next in their learning journey is going to vary greatly. To help product owners understand the current strengths and weaknesses of their profile and where to improve next, we have developed a product owner maturity model.

 

Product Owner Impact

At a high-level, there are two ways in which a Product Owner will positively impact a team/organization:

  • Run the product: in this part of the maturity model you will find the skills needed to lead a product within an existing organization. This means being able to navigate the complexities of value delivery related to incrementally improving a product that has already found its market fit and has to align itself within a broader business strategy. Skills in this area are also connected to the ability to scale the delivery and operational organizations connected to the product.
  • Grow the products: in this part of the maturity model we are focused on the skills required to launch a new product, pivot an existing one, or lead any strategic change to an existing offering. This means the ability to understand unknown market needs, mastering innovation techniques and processes, as well as leading the changes required to bring a new product or service to market. 


We then broke down the two key activities the Product Owner is busy with in each of these impact areas.

In the case of “run the product”, we see the following key activities for a Product Owner:

 

  • Sustain – a Product Owner is able to sustain the normal growth of a product after it has found a market fit and a user base. This means some of the classical product management responsibilities such as planning, analyzing market trends, identifying improvement opportunities, goal setting, and leading the delivery organization. It also means the ability to design, scale, and lead the product organization (org design, operating model, and metrics)

  • People – a great Product Owner is able to connect with people and develop productive relationships. When looking outside their own product organization, this means collaborating with stakeholders, building win-win relationships with partners, and engaging with customers & end users. Within their product organization, the Product Owner is a leader, responsible for communicating a vision and guiding the delivery teams. 

 

In the case of “grow the product”, we have identified the following key activities for a Product Owner:

 

  • Learn – a Product Owner is responsible for creating a product organization that is continuously learning about their customers, users, and competitive environment. Innovation is not random inspiration, it is the result of a way of working that encourages experimentation, captures valuable data, takes the time to reflect on what they have learned, and have the courage to make the necessary changes to keep improving.

  • Change – Besides learning about customer needs and market opportunities, a Product Owner adept at growing products is able to lead the necessary changes to bring a product or service to market. This means an understanding of go-to-market strategies, as well as an understanding of how to lead internal change in an organization to put in place the people, structures, and processes necessary to support the launch of the product or service.

 

So this part of the maturity model helps to understand the different ways in which a Product Owner can positively impact a team/organization. The next part of the model focuses on the skills a Product Owner needs to be able to impact these different areas.

 

Now, before going into the eight (8) different skill areas, it is important to understand the two basic postures a Product Owner can take. Regardless of what challenge they are active with, Product Owners can always take one of two postures:

 

  • External Focus – Here the Product Owner is looking outside the organization towards the market, their customers, users, and partners, as well as their competition. Vision and goals, for example, are created with an external posture, as they are focused on making an impact outside of the product organization.

  • Internal Focus – Once there is a clear vision, a Product Owner must be capable of looking inside their product organization and ensure they have a good structure and way of working in place, and they need to collaborate with teams and stakeholders to ensure delivery roadmaps and efforts are aligned to maximize value delivery.
 

So for each activity area (sustain, people, learn, and change) there is a skill set related to looking externally towards the market, user, customers, and partners, and a skill set related to looking internally at the product organization and value delivery activities needed to achieve product goals. This is relevant for a Product Owner looking to make an impact in their organization because they can look to improve first on the type of skill most needed for their context. In some organizations, the Product Owner is expected to take an existing high-level roadmap and focus on the tactical tasks related to value delivery (internal look). In other cases, the Product Owner is expected to take advantage of an opportunity in the market as has to look externally to understand the customer needs and iterate on different business models and offering to find the right market fit. A profile suitable for one context, might not be suitable for the other.

 

Product Owner Skills

Now let’s take a look at the different skill sets needed to make an impact on each of the four activity areas.

 

Sustain

One of the skill sets a Product Owner needs to make an impact is related to PRODUCT MANAGEMENT. Here we the Product Owner is taking an external perspective, looking towards the market, customer, and users. Successful Product Owners are able to understand market trends and segmentation, as well as product strategy, vision, and goals. They know techniques to better understand user needs, and have the ability to translate those needs into a product roadmap that is aligned with the overall strategy. A strong profile in this area will provide the product organization with a clear North Star (direction) regarding where we’re going with the product and why.

On the internal perspective of the “sustain” activities are skils related to PRODUCT ORGANIZATION. Great Product Owners are able to lead the internal product organization, from org design and alignment routines, to collaborating with delivery teams and prioritizing work. They understand Agile value delivery at scale, and are adept at continuously improving the product with data, experiments, and collaboration. A strong profile in this area will impact an organization by providing transparency on goals, priorities and progress, ensuring teams collaborate effectively to maximize value delivery.

 

People

CleanShot 2024-06-18 at 00.11.03@2x

When it comes to people, an external perspective means the Product Owner is looking outside of their product organization and focusing on RELATIONSHIP BUILDING. This means understanding techniques and practices to improve transparency, collaboration, and alignment with key stakeholders from the wider organization, as well as external partners and suppliers. Great Product Owners are able to develop win-win relationships with these people, increasing their product’s chances for success.

When we look at the internal perspective of the “people” activity, we find LEADERSHIP. Here the Product Owner is looking internally in their product organization and acting as a leader. This touches on a variety of skills, including the ability to communicate vision and goals and ensure all delivery teams are aligned on the direction they’re going. Likewise, a great Product Owner is able to mentor junior Product Owners, as well as serving as an example for the values, practices, and standards they would like their product organization to embody.

 

Learn

CleanShot 2024-06-18 at 00.11.22@2x

A critical part of Agile product development is the ability to capture feedback and data that enables learning (and subsequently adapting). When taking an external perspective, this means focusing on CUSTOMER CENTRICITY. Skills in this area are helping Product Owners to master techniques and practices that enable them to identify and validate hypotheses about their target market(s), and templates for capturing those learnings. Also related to this area, a Product Owner should be able to identify different data types to collect to continue to learn about their customers.

Shifting to an internal focus for the “learning” area, we find skills and practices related to INNOVATION, taking all the learnings from our customer centric practices and applying them to an internal process that benefits from patterns and processes such diverge-converge, MVP-thinking, and fail-to-safe experiments. Product Owners that excel in in this area have the knowledge of how innovation processes connect to customer centric activities to ultimately deliver validated learnings for an organization looking to scale up successful experiments.

 

Change

CleanShot 2024-06-18 at 00.11.35@2x

In the previous area (“learn”) we find the skills related to the a Product Owner’s ability to discover the correct product-market fit. Here we are focused on the skills related to the Product Owner’s ability to bring about the change needed to capitalize on that product-market fit. This could be for a new product/service or a new direction for an existing product. When taking an external perspective, this means skills connected to GO TO MARKET capabilities, such as developing a marketing strategy, identifying and developing sales channels, experimenting with business models, and building partnerships. A strong “go to market” profile also possesses the soft skills needed to pitch their vision in a way that connects with the right audience, and as such knows techniques and practices related to building a community around their product.

 

When taking an internal focus on the topic of “change”, we focus on the skills related to CHANGE MANAGEMENT, needed to setup the internal processes, structures, and responsibilities necessary to support the launch and growth of their new offering. This means the ability to design a support organization capable of handling the new types of requests connected to the launch while remaining compliant with organizational standards. Product Owner’s who excel in this area understand the elements of a successful change management approach and how to lead internal change in an Agile way.

CleanShot 2024-06-18 at 00.11.50@2x

Maturity model in practice

 

This model enables individuals and organizations to be more strategic about their staffing. Two teams might ask an organization for the same thing – “we need a Product Owner to lead our team.” Perfectly valid request. However, these two teams might have very different needs. 

 

In one case, they might need a Product Owner who is comfortable in the Run the Product area because they are the Homebanking app team for a large, traditional retail bank, where they do little innovation, but instead focused on improving the experience for existing (and new) bank clients. It’s not the job of this Product Owner to go out and get new clients, or find new revenue streams for the bank. They need to be able to lead delivery teams and ensure they keep continuously improving the product. Putting a Product Owner who excels in the Grow the Product area here would create unnecessary friction as they would be trying to move the team to a level of experimentation that the bank wouldn’t be comfortable with. 

 

 

By using this maturity model, organizations can be more strategic about:

 

  • Learning & development – what capabilities do we need from our Product Owners right now? Do they have it? How do we close that gap? By understanding the maturity model and their context, organizations can craft custom learning programs focused on impact.

  • Staffing – what capabilities do our Product Owners have right now? Where can we place them to maximize their chances of having a positive impact? What skills should the Product Owners we’re hiring have?

  • Knowledge sharing – it is easier to build learning communities if there is clarity on who is strong in what skill set. Who can mentor these new Product Owners on these practices? Who has unique skills that could benefit other Product Owners?

 

Likewise with individuals, by using the BeanStalk assessment to understand how their skills map in the Product Owner maturity model, they will be better able to:

  • Personal development plan – by understanding where you stand today, what impact you’re able to create, and what your current context requires from you, you can create your custom learning program.

  • Career planning – when considering your next assignment, ensuring you are picking an environment that needs the capabilities you have.