Informing the bereaved product owner

I once worked with the CEO of a company with too many products, and he took it upon himself to cut down the product portfolio dramatically so that the company could focus on what was most worthwhile. During one such meeting someone must have said how it was going to be very difficult to tell a product owner that their product was getting the chop. This was not the first time the CEO had heard this, and he said, “we must stop treating product owners as if they are the bereaved. People need to get used to the fact that things change quickly, and it’s not about them.”

This struck me as a very good outlook. On the one hand it’s unavoidable for a good product owner to invest some emotion into their work—we all need to care about our work in order to do it most effectively. But equally people (and especially the product owner) need to know how a product fits into the overall landscape of their organisation. That the product addresses genuine user needs is core, and so too is an affinity with the users. But that is only part of the whole. The product also has to fit with the organisation’s strategy, or strategies, and there is likely to be some expectation around profitability. If the product owner understands all these things then they can steer their product most effectively, and won’t be too surprised about a change in direction or even closure. Indeed, a really effective product owner will be driving for change before most of the other stakeholders do.

I know another company that sent very clear messages about its direction, and in particular about what it considered its most important product, leading up to a particular key date. This was so clear, in fact, that one team lead was quite vocal about wanting to change his team’s work. He recognised that the high priority product needed much more support, and yet his team was working on something else. Before long his and another team had been refocused. That would have happened anyway, but because of his persistence it happened sooner rather than later. Overall he probably won the company an advantage of several weeks, which was significant. He was able to do this for the company because the leadership team had been very clear about their direction and context.

Giving product owners and teams the context is very valuable. Not just because it makes otherwise-difficult conversations less difficult, but because they can actually initiate effective change, and push the organisation as a whole.

Photo by Darrell Miller