10 Most Common Mistakes of Product Owner

Being a Product Owner is not simple. At the end of the day, Product Owners are responsible for the overall Product success. They need to have business knowledge, authority and time. But let’s have a look what are the typical mistakes of a Product Owner as this is one of the very common questions at the classes and learn from that perspective. Here is the list:

Doesn’t Have a Vision

Without a clear vision, there is no direction, no way Product Owner can prioritize, and no Scrum. It’s just a mess where all we can do is to say “everything needs to be done”. The key responsibility of the Product Owner is to have a vision and be able to share it with everybody. Agile organization is about having an evolutionary purpose. If you don’t have it, why are you even here? Similarly to the vision, we have a Sprint goal in Scrum. Without it, everything seems like a good idea to do in Sprint. Sprint goal helps us focus on the need, the real business value.

Can’t Say No

There is no way you can do everything. There are so many options in a complex world. So much functionality customers can ask for. The Product Owner who says yes to all wishes from the customers will fail as the quantity will burn out the organization. Instead, Product Owners are prioritizing based on the business value, and as 80% of value is hidden in only 20% of the functionality, they need to say no quite often during their prioritization.

Doesn’t Have the Business Knowledge

Business knowledge is wider than just a product understanding. It covers the understanding of customers, the market, and the competitive landscape. Without such deeper understanding, Product Owners can’t make a decision and are drafted by different stakeholder groups into their politic fights and the products are usually failing to deliver the real value. Product Owner doesn’t have to be technical, but the business knowledge is critical to their success.

Can’t Prioritize

Product Owner who believes everything needs to be done is not a Product Owner but customer or stakeholder. Prioritization is key in Scrum, at any time you shall know what is more important than the rest and what are we going to invest our energy (effort and money) into next and the rest later or never, depending on the feedback and impact we achieved by the value delivered. There is always more functionality which can be implemented. But maybe that little we already did is good enough for now and we can focus on some other more important areas. As I said already, 80% of value is hidden in only 20% of the functionality. There is no need to implement 100% of the ideas you have.

Don’t Have Negotiation Skills

The Product Owners without negotiation skills are very weak Product Owners. They often end us accepting everything customers ask for and are struggling to say no. Negotiation skill help Product Owners to understand not only what the users want but also what they need. Ant that’s the key part of the prioritization.

Estimates are the Key

Product owners who focus too much on estimates are mentally tight to the functionality, not the business value. In the traditional world, the estimates are important as all we care about is delivery, and we need to deliver more. In the Agile world, it’s not about delivering features. It’s about achieving certain business value. And those two have often only very little in common.

Doesn’t experiment

Product Owners who believe they can create a plan (in agile called Backlog) and then step by step execute it with the development teams during Sprints are not real Product Owners. Backlog can’t be farther from a plan and an iterative approach of delivery is here to inspect and adapt and learn from experiments. Find out where is the real value. The approaches like Lean Startup are quite useful here.

No Impact

As we said, Product Owner shall be able to run experiments. In a way, every backlog item is an experiment where you expect something will happen as a result. That’s the impact. Without knowing why you invest team time and energy into it, why to do it in the first place? Running an experiment without knowing how are you going to evaluate it is silly. That’s not an experiment but functionality you plan to deliver no matter what. Why? Because it’s important. Because I said so. Instead, spend more time identifying the impact so you know why you do it and what you expect to happen. Tools like Impact Mapping are quite helpful here.

Multiple Products

Or shall I say systems, or projects? Because product definition is much wider than that. Product Owners taking care of multiple product don’t have focus, and often don’t have time. Considering Product Owner is the person responsible for the overall product success including the return of investment, it’s quite useful to have the focus for making the product successful and don’t switch the context all the time.

Not Part of the Team

Product Owners sometimes feel they don’t belong to the team. They act as Backlog managers, telling the team what to do, and then waiting to get results/blaming at the end of Sprint. Instead of that, Product Owners are part of the Scrum team, they are team members, they shall collaborate with the team on delivering the value and achieving the Sprint Goal. They are part of the team.

From Good to Great: Radical Transparency

I started the series From Good to Great by advising you to find your own way of being Agile. The next blog focuses on radical transparency. Let’s be truthful for a moment, how many organizations you worked for have real transparency, and how many are hiding information behind the teams or department walls, encourage by processes and claimed necessity of being compliant. Lack of transparency is a strong weapon which eventually can kill any Agile transformation as it makes collaboration and self-organization almost impossible. Lack of transparency is a great friend of hierarchical structures supported by fear and politics. “If I’m the only one who has the information, no one can jeopardize my position, and I’m safe being manager… All I need to do to be promoted is wait and make sure that no big mistake happens.”  Sound familiar?

Once you really mean it with your Agile journey, radical transparency is the key enabler. Together with the empowerment raising from the self-organization, it brings the energy and people start to take over the responsibility and ownership. They don’t wait until someone promote them to any function, they don’t wait for any orders. They take it over and collaborate on the solution.

Radical transparency is the key enabler of agility

Understand the Purpose

To understand the organizational vision and have a clear evolutionary purpose is crucial to successful collaboration and self-organization. In order to take over any initiative, people have to understand where are we heading, who are we, and who we don’t want to be. There is a very simple test. All you need to do is to take a random employee and ask him/her what is the vision/purpose/uniqueness of this organization. For simplicity, you can start with the executive leadership team to see if they didn’t lose the track of why they are there. 🙂 The good news is they usually know exactly what is the vision and can explain it in a very clear and engaging way. But when you do a cross-check across the organization, very likely there is a disconnect (usually several or even too many) which results in a very disruptive chaotic way of working. To fix it, storytelling is your best friend. Nothing can set up the stage better. Using serious of collaborative workshops like worldcafe, openspace, etc. involve people in co-creating the vision and help them to be part of it. Storytelling will set the directions. They need to own it, they need to believe it, they need to feel a need to be part of it. That’s the energy you need to begin. It brings innovative thinking, creativity, and empowerment, when people start offering help, ideas, and are ready to sacrifice personal goals in exchange for being part of something bigger.

Experiment, Inspect, Adapt

The next step is run experiments. At every level, you need to be transparent and openly share experiments at the early stage, and last but not least be ready to adapt through feedback. The downside is that before you learn how to collaborate and pass a test that you have the same understanding of the vision, it’s going to be very inefficient, and frustrating. “If we can just do it our way”, “they don’t understand it”, and “we know what to do so why shall we ask for feedback” people often say. But if you are strong enough and sustain the need for shortcut pre-baked solutions, very soon you see the results in higher collaboration, better understanding and some kind of harmony, which all over results in a high-performing environment.

Together with that, you need to run regular retrospectives and be transparent about the action steps. Share the backlog internally and externally. Simply there is no or very few information which needs to be hidden. If you believe you find any, try to double-check it by playing the “Five Why” and make sure you have a plan on what needs to be done so you can make it fully transparent.

Be Inclusive

The last necessary step on the radical transparency journey is to be inclusive. There is no such thing as a closed meeting. They shall be publicly visible with an open invitation so people can join if they are interested and have something to say. If there are many people, the facilitator can use some diverge and merge facilitation techniques, but no restriction shall be applied for the sake of efficiency.

It’s not about being fast without alignment, it’s about building alignment so you can be even faster.

Radical transparency is hard. You first need to have the courage to say things how they are, don’t be afraid to hear difficult feedback, have trust people will help you, and be ready to help others because after all, you all have the same vision, the same evolutionary purpose to achieve. It’s not easy but is a great investment and it will pay back in forming a highly adaptive (agile) high-performing organizations – the organizations which are formed to crack the challenges of the nowadays complex world.

Agile Leaders are the beginning of modern management

In order to achieve success at the organizational level, we need to start management talent development program to create leaders who will help to grow a company, make quick decisions and stay ahead of others. Modern leadership style is no longer applying the traditional model of the “leader-follower”, i.e. one decides and the other executes orders. Nowadays, when most employees are from the category of creative workers and the company is looking for innovation and creative ideas to stay competitive, the leader-leader model is a more effective one, where the leaders’ main goal is to help others to be successful leaders. What is modern Agile management or Agile leadership about?

Excellent Agile Leader has four core competencies: Ability to define the vision, motivate, gain feedback, and ability to influence through themselves, others and system.

The ability to formulate a vision is the engine of change and motivation. A vision is not necessarily linked to product and business but should be focused on the organization and its purpose. The second competency is the ability to motivate and give the energy. It is a competence closely related to the vision. If you have a good vision, it motivates itself. Agile leadership builds on so-called internal motivation to strengthen the autonomy of individuals and teams. The third of Agile leader’s competences is feedback. Feedback is DNA component for Agile Organization together with openness and transparency. The art of getting system-level feedback is critical for the leader. The last is the art of influencing complex environments. Change things, people and their behavior, support and consolidate culture. Agile leadership begins with a change of self, your judgments, values, and behavior, style of work. Great leaders start with themselves as a role model, to change the way they show up, how they interact with others, and how they can inspire people around them to collaborate, create a team spirit, and become leaders. They are capable of working with the entire system and influence the whole organization and its culture.

Agile Leader-Wheel

Agile Leader Wheel also defines four supporting competencies to help leaders define the right approach. When is it better to decide and when decisions can be delegated and it’s better to collaborate. At the same time, when it’s better to take a role of facilitator and when start coaching. We do not talk that much about coaching individuals, which of course may be useful, but coaching the whole system – teams and organizations as a whole. Excellent Agile Leaders have not been born as Agile Leaders, but they are constantly looking for new ways to get better and to gain and strengthen the above-mentioned competencies.