BeanStalk

One of the challenges organizations face when moving towards Agile ways of working is the role of a product owner. We generally understand the idea of the one person ultimately accountable for return-on-investment for their “product”. However, go into a company doing Agile nowadays and ask one of the product owners if they are empowered to take decisions for their product. In my experience most will say something like, “well, it’s complicated…”.

The four perspectives

I like to talk about the four different perspectives of a product owner, as a way to help organizations and people understand the role better. It’s a simple quadrant showing the different views requiring the attention of product owners:

  • External x internal (horizontal-axis) – on the left side of the graph the product owner is looking externally (market, customers, objectives, …), while on the right-side they are looking inside the organization (roadmap, teams, risks, …).
  • Long-term x short-term (vertical-axis) – at the top of the graph the product owner is looking to the long-term, while on the bottom of the graph they are looking at the short-term.

This provides us with 4 different perspectives of the product owner:

  1. Vision & objectives (external & long-term)
  2. Strategy & roadmap (internal & long-term)
  3. Tactics & planning (internal & short-term)
  4. Learning & adapting (external & short-term)
perspectives of a product owner

Aligning on structure and responsibilities

Now, a great product owner is switching between these four perspectives continuously. This is not a sequence in the sense that you start at step 1, and go to step 4. The point is, you need to make sure enough attention is being given to each of these different perspectives, and realizing moments when one might require more attention than others.

Understanding this already helps to align people on the full scope of the product owner’s role. And this unlocks further discussions about what is realistic in specific contexts, and how to adapt to those constraints.

For example, some organizations choose to have different people focusing on each of these perspectives. Imagine, for example, some Chief Product Owner defining vision and objectives, then tribe-level product owners co-creating the roadmap, so that eventually team-level product owners can focus on the tactical delivery. Very consistent with a SAFe-type view of the product owner role. Understanding that different people are owning different perspectives in this case, enables the organization to reflect on how to make sure we keep all these different types of product owners aligned. And we can discuss how this will require some more structure and process and will likely cost us some decision velocity.

Other organizations choose a simpler model and assign all 4 perspectives to one product owner. This would be more consistent with a LeSS-type understanding of product ownership. It’s simpler, but also has its drawbacks. It’s challenging staffing these roles (since they require such a broad skill set), and it usually requires significant changes to the structure and policies of an organization. And here again, if this is the approach being taken, understanding the four different perspectives enables a more realistic understanding of the skills and time commitment necessary to do this well.

Conclusion

Both approaches can work. The point here is that we can’t even have a conversation about which approach to choose if we first don’t have a shared understanding of the four different product ownership perspectives. Then, after the role(s) are staffed, a more detailed look can be given if the product owners have the skills and knowledge necessary to operate effectively within their assigned perspective(s).

All of this while not losing sight that ultimately, real product ownership is making sure all four perspectives are in harmony.