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Product Owner Origins: Liam Neeson or Dragon’s Den?

Product Owners hold a lot on their shoulders. Responsibility for return on investment, ensuring the Scrum team is delivering the highest value items first towards their product, laying out the product’s holy grail in the form of one or more Product Goals… there’s a lot to get right. Taking a very general view, Product Owners need two things to be able to tackle this complex role.

One of these two things is a passion for their product. They need to believe in it, to have come up with an incredible idea that’s worth pursuing, to have a vision and a drive to get there. They should be excited about delivering the product and seeing their dream turn into reality.

The other is the skill set required to navigate the complex landscape of Product Ownership – negotiating with stakeholders, curating the Product Backlog, and being able to respond quickly and healthily to change in a number of different ways.

But which comes first?

It’s fairly unlikely that someone with the right set of skills to be an awesome Product Owner was the same person who came up with the idea for the product.

With this in mind, we could consider Product Owners coming from two different routes – those who are entrepreneurs, like the great minds who appear on Dragon’s Den, with a fantastic new idea that they are keen to see come to life. And those who are Liam Neeson, or rather, someone with a very particular set of skills. They are skilled and experienced in Product Ownership in general, who are likely able to apply this skillset to any kind of product.

Running with this concept, let’s do a shallow dive into both.

Entrepreneurs

Someone, somewhere, has an incredible thought. It could be problem-space orientated (“Wouldn’t it be great if we could solve…”) or solution-space orientated (“Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an app that does…”). They have a vision, they are passionate, and they may well be creative; most of all, they are in a position to drive this vision through and make real change happen.

Entrepreneur-origin POs are good at inspiring those around them about their product or idea. Developers are likely to get excited about the passion they are seeing, and the Product Owner can get others on board too who are vital to the success of the product – people like sponsors, senior management, and other people who need to be convinced of this direction.

But what about the potential dangers for our Dragon’s Den entrepreneur-POs?- Since they’ve come up with the original thought to make something new, they may not place as much value in data-gathering to check their hypothesis, just assuming product value (be that financial value or any other kind of value they should strive to achieve).- Negotiating with and balancing the demands of stakeholders and customers is harder when a) you might just be caring about your own vision and b) you’ve never had to negotiate like this before.- Well-crafted Product Backlog Items, or user stories, may be elusive for them, leading to developers creating something different than what the Product Owner meant or imagined.

Skilled and experienced

This origin route covers our Product Owners who own a product because of the skills they have. They are known for being a Product Owner and feel comfortable in understanding new product spaces, stakeholder mapping, and being able to articulate chunks of value. A familiarity in being an interface between stakeholders and the developers may have even come from previous roles such as project management or, more effectively, be a skillset that has grown over time from experience. Entrepreneur POs who find a love for the Product Ownership profession may eventually be on this origin route, particularly if they start owning products other than their original.

Our skilled-and-experienced -origin Product Owners are good at quickly understanding problem spaces and applying themselves as Product Owners regardless of what that product is. If you’re a Product Owner and you aren’t sure if that’s you, ask yourself if the product was your idea in the first place. If it wasn’t, this is probably you! You’re in this space because you have the skills to do the PO role. Maybe you’re in this space because the entrepreneur does not have the time to drive their product, so they are happy to hand over the reins (and the authority, if done correctly) to you.

But what about the potential dangers for our Liam-Neeson-POs?- While they can be more pragmatic about the direction the product takes based on stakeholder engagement, there is a risk that the passion for the overall vision is not there.- Since their link to a problem space is through their skills, they are easier for an organisation to move between products in response to changing organisational needs. The organisation is unlikely to fully understand the cost in lost effectiveness as the Product Owner works to re-establish themselves against a new product or in an entirely new problem space.- They might miss the mark when understanding the true value that a product brings. Having to learn about various user groups or personas, rather than understanding them because you work alongside them (likely the case for an entrepreneur), can be time-consuming and difficult to do well.

So what?

Entrepreneurs can, of course, learn the complex Product Owner skillset over time, but at first glance, it looks harder for those with that skill set to suddenly be passionate and a driver for their product. It poses a few questions.

Can those who are Product Owner because they have the right skills rather than it being themselves who came up with the life-changing idea ever become the entrepreneur?

Should we value experienced/skilled Product Owners so that we can move across products as priority dictates over Product Owners who care about their own product but not so much for Product Ownership as a skillset?

Does your Product Owner, or Product Owners in your organisation, fall more into one of these categories, and how does that impact (positively or negatively – likely both!) their work in their teams?


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