10 Tips for the (Starting) Product Owner

It was sometime in the spring of 2016 when my former employer was feeling hopeless. In the middle of “the battle” (building a new e-commerce platform), my colleague, the project manager, gave up. With a project that did not want to float (I will spare you the details) there was only one thing: working agile for the first time, starting with the appointment of a product owner.

As a project manager with a rich experience in e-commerce, I was asked to take on this role. The role of “product owner” was new to me, so I started looking for information on the internet. I found a lot (A LOT) of information, but few practical tools to build my role up from ‘green field’ (within a typical waterfall project organization). Since I want to save you my suffering, I hereby share my 10 most important tips for a starting product owner in a large organization:

1. Know your stakeholders

They are often hidden in the depths of your organization, but make sure you gather and keep the right experts and policymakers around you. Good product ownership starts with good stakeholder management. Understand the concerns and challenges of each stakeholder and be honest and transparent. Don’t make empty promises and be open to input. Maybe you are part of the IT organization, maybe not: become friends with them, you will need them badly.

2. Find unity

Especially within conservative (“waterfall” minded) organizations, it is important that you find fellow agile evangelists and keep them close to you. Pioneer together, make agile negotiable (from the canteen to the boardroom)… spread the word!

3. Form your backlog

Where do you start? Look at current projects within your ‘product’, research your market and gather insights from your stakeholders and (last but not least) customers. Based on the business objectives and market movements, determine what the factors should be that determine your prioritization.

4. Start small

Don’t try to move mountains, but focus on achievable goals. Step by step you achieve your result, but understand that this takes time. Get to know your team, support where necessary, and remove uncertainties and barricades. As a product owner you are responsible for determining the backlog, so make sure that the priorities are clear from the start.

5. Stick to your scope

In project management-land, the term “scope creep” is no stranger. Due to the arrival of new ideas, wishes, requirements and problems, the scope of your initiative or epic grows steadily. Very seductive and therefore annoying, knowing that the next epic (with high business value) is eager to be taken care of. So ‘stick to your guns’, and stick to your initially conceived plan and size.

6. Analyze and report progress

To measure is to know. In order for your stakeholders to rally behind you, it is important to demonstrate that your team delivers, that they offer added value for your organization. Therefore, set clear SMART objectives in advance, do a 0-measurement and analyze the effect that your improvements bring about. Without data, no demonstrable success.

7. Motivate and unburden your team

By dividing your attention among all your stakeholders and customers, you quickly forget your running engine: the team. If agile is (relatively) new for your organization, that also means switching for your team. All those ritual meetings, including that frightening sprint demo, demand a lot and must therefore also be supervised. Try to let your team focus as much as possible on one or a few initiatives and keep them out of your (political) discussions with stakeholders. Focus and motivation is the most important thing.

8. Celebrating and sharing successes

To create more visibility within your organization and show your team appreciation, I advise you: four important milestones. This is often forgotten, but provides a good boost in motivation and helps to demonstrate the value of your team (and agile approach). In addition, a party is never gone, right?

9. Being optimistic

As with any entrepreneur, be optimistic. The life of a product owner is certainly not about roses, but never lower your shoulders. See opportunities and approach every problem as a challenge. Your attitude reflects on your stakeholders and your team, so set the right example.

10. Keep learning, keep on trying!

Both yourself and your team can always improve. Spar with your team (attend retro meetings) and fellow product owners, attend events and subscribe to professional literature and newsletters. Try out new ways to scorecard, inform your stakeholders, facilitate meetings, et cetera et cetera. Your personal development is also in your own hands.

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