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« So When Do I Need a Product Owner? | Main | Revenue Products need Product Managers, not Product Owners »
Saturday
Oct042008

How Are We Defining Product Owners?

{My last post "Revenue Products need Product Managers, not Product Owners" generated a lot of comments and emails about the product owner role. In particular, I appreciate some energetic observations from Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, which led to this follow-on thought. A third part of the discussion is "When Do I Need a Product Owner?" - Rich Mironov}

Several people pointed out that I'm using a very narrow definition of product owner rather than the broad (aspirational) description laid out by the Scrum Alliance. Here's how Ken Schwaber defines product owner:

"The 'Product Owner' is responsible for the ROI of the project. So this is the person who is representing everyone's interest in the project and is responsible for the project delivering a value greater than the money being sunk into it. The Product Owner is usually the client employee who commissions the project and owns the deliverable in terms of responsibility post implementation... with these responsibilities:

  • Defines the features of the product, decides on release date and content
  •  Aggregates input from users, stakeholders and other interested parties to form a single view of the prioritized requirements for the system.
  •  Is responsible for the profitability of the product (ROI)
  •  Prioritizes features according to market value
  •  Can change features and priority every 30 days
  • Accepts or rejects work results"


I'd call this the "big product owner" definition rather than the "small product owner" that I've used. In fact, the "big product owner" could align with familiar descriptions of product management. So why should we make a distinction, and why compare the "small product owner" with product managers?

Focusing on revenue-generating software, here are three reasons:

  1. Technology companies assign product managers (by name) to make their products successful.
  2. Academia and industry know how to train product managers across a very wide range of skills. How do product owners learn these?
  3. We (Enthiosys) see "small product owners" at many of our clients, but never see formally designated "big product owners." Instead, they call themselves Directors of Product Management or Business Unit Managers.

 


Breaking it down:

1. The world calls them product managers. When software companies build new product teams, they assign a product manager. Job boards advertise product management openings. Recruiters troll for them. Companies are not ambiguous about needing development managers and QA leads, nor are they fuzzy about wanting experienced product management. When revenue is at stake, companies want a track record of success in well-understood roles. The industry calls these people product managers.

Having interviewed many hundreds of product managers for open positions, I always look for experience as a product manager and demonstrated ability to balance technical depth with market/customer understanding. It's not enough to want to be one, or have romantic ideas about product ownership.

2. There's a range of training for product managers. Berkeley's Haas School of Business teaches product management at the graduate and executive levels. (I'm honored to be on their staff.) Respected professors teach pricing, segmentation, market research, development methodologies, information theory, reward systems, and other related disciplines. They label this product management education. Likewise, Pragmatic Marketing has trained 50,000 product managers on the roles and responsibilities of the job. De facto, when someone wants training on product management, they ask for it by name.

There are seminars outlining the product owner role, but they skim over the non-development parts of the job. If product owners are really responsible for pricing, segmentation, market research, financially valid ROI and savvy customer-relevant messaging, where do they learn these skills? Today, product owners wanting more than a few hours on these subjects look to academic and industry programs labeled "product management" and "marketing."

3. At dozens of client engagements, we (Enthiosys) see many "small product owners" but no "big product owners." Certainly, there are executives who would agree that they act as big product owners - but when you check their business cards you see titles like "Senior Product Manager" and "VP Product Management" and "COO, Network Security Products." They don’t self-identify as product owners.

Instead, we see lots of smart folks who are newly volunteered as product owners without a clear understanding of the issues beyond the development organization. They are surprised by demands from sales, marketing, customers, support and partners. They have a simplistic and romantic notion that prioritizing backlogs is free of politics. They mistake a few vocal customers for the marketplace. They've never priced a product or done serious financial projections. In other words, they find out that revenue products need product managers (not just product owners) to meet the company-wide requirements for whole and complete products.

Summarizing, we'd say that the world already has "big product owners" and we call them product managers. We're concerned that "small product owners" assigned to revenue-generating software are not well prepared for their challenges if they don't have a product manager with them.

 

Reader Comments (4)

Rich,
Right on the mark. The commercial software organizations we work with who are implementing Agile are struggling with this issue, trying to stretch Big Product Owners to cover added time and detail that small product owners deal with. Conversely, the internal IT organizations have small product owners covered but are severely lacking in Big Product Owner/Product Management knowledge, as you pointed out. Great training in Product Management IS available and more and more companies are seeking it out.
We applaud Agile because collaboration in software development has ALWAYS been better than the alternative. We need the Agile experts to get on board with Product Management as a role and the owner of the top 2 levels of the 5 Levels of Planning, along with the other 3 P's of marketing.
The other role that Product Management plays is true cross-functional coordination, both pre- and post-development. Agile gives us a great way to create bits, but the end problem is not solved until the users are using the bits. Product managers in both commercial and non-commercial software organizations work to ensure that communication and adoption take place once the bits are done. While that's implied in Schwaber's definition, I'm betting that most Product Owner training doesn't come close to addressing how a good rollout might be accomplished.
Thanks for taking this issue head-on!

October 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Merrick

Rich -
Well done.
One of the things that is under-taught is the importance of political skills, particularly in the Sales and Engineering interface. Skill at scaring up a budget and persuading divergent factions to cooperate is crucial to the success of big software projects. It gets particularly ugly when the CEO or CTO fundamentally does not trust marketers or the marketing discipline...or trusts them only to blow up balloons at marketing events.

December 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Taber

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