In An Agile Planning Session Observed, I mentioned the chance I had to watch a good, engaged Product Owner in action, and the benefit that can come from that.
Based on what I saw, here are some attributes I think are necessary to be a great Product Owner:
A busy executive, the Product Owner made powerfully clear how important this planning week was by being present at every session. He re-scheduled his other meetings, sat in the room with the team, and did not check e-mails or phone messages during the sessions. He backed his words with his actions.
Deeply understands the voice of the customer.
This Product Owner had spent 5 months talking to actual users using both informal and structured interviews, focus groups, and conceptual layouts. He had used his findings to sell the project to senior management and used the stories to motivate the team. He was articulate.
Respectful of the team and of the process… and properly blunt.
He did not take things at face value. Instead, he engaged the team in genuine conversation, treating them as professionals. And, he was unafraid to speak bluntly about his frustrations. When he had to decide, he decided. Yet when it came to matters about this new Lean-Agile process, he was willing to defer to the (Net Objectives) coach, demonstrating that it is OK to learn.
“Just ask me.”
His knew how to marshal resources and was unafraid to break organizational rules when necessary. Every time the team got hung up on some impediment, he kept reminding them, “Just ask me for help. Tell me what you need.”
Focused on the behavior and outcomes he wants and on customer value.
The developer team was excited about the possibility of using some new technology in this tool, but worried aloud for quite a while about response time problems they might encounter. The Product Owner helped straighten this out.
“When I talked to you, I didn’t talk about response time; in fact, our customers seem to feel that small delays make the advice seem ‘smarter’. I didn’t talk about a particular technology. So, let’s be clear: I expect that every technical decision you make must support the One Big Thing. And I expect you to show me several alternatives, simple to complex.”
Not just another project on his plate.
The Product Owner flatly told the team that he was committed to seeing this project through to completion. He was not planning to move on to something else after kicking this off. He committed to the success of the product.
Contrast this with another project I saw a while ago. They used the same Agile approach, had the same type of developers, had the same type of coaching. But instead of an engaged and empowered Product Owner, they had a senior executive with a Big Idea that was not rooted in the Voice of the Customer. Instead, he thought it was cool, had convinced senior management to try it, and proceeded to drive it through political power. The team struggled and finally stopped. And they blamed Agile for the mess.
Lean-Agile requires an engaged Product Owner. Lacking this, you can still use Agile to help create the code quickly, but you may not end up creating value for the customer.