lean product owner principles

The Four Obsessions of a Lean Product Owner

“The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team.”

― Jeff Sutherland & Ken Schwaber, The Scrum Guide

Q: How do we excel as Product Owners?  

After all, the job sounds pretty straightforward as outlined in The Scrum Guide. We listen to our customers to learn their needs, define a backlog of user stories to work on, and keep the backlog items prioritized. In larger organizations we may not even need to spend much time with customers; product managers may conduct the research and deliver us pre-packaged definitions of features. Once we’ve mastered the skills to split user stories and define acceptance criteria, what else is there?

One approach to answering these questions is to look at the history of our work. (A good place to start is Martin Eriksson’s excellent 2015 article The History and Evolution of Product Management.) We can mine history’s trove of proven practices to inform our own discipline of product ownership. In doing so, we recognize that many of the Agile principles and practices we apply today share roots with Lean Manufacturing, and the Toyota Production System that originated in the 1950s.

Good Product Owners are Agile…great Product Owners are Agile and Lean.

Combining these key concepts from Lean and Agile lets us build a framework of mutually-reinforcing principles for successful product ownership. I’ve come to believe that good Product Owners are Agile — but great Product Owners are Agile and Lean.

A focus on four key themes — I call these my Four Obsessions – can help good Product Owners raise their game to higher level of mastery:

Value

This should come as no surprise:  a focus on delivering value is literally part of the Product Owner’s job description. As a PO, it’s up to you to ensure your Agile team’s entire effort is dedicated to delivering value for your customers and your business. Any oversight on your part has tangible repercussions: dissatisfied users, opportunity costs, and diminished morale are just a few.

A focus on value is evident when we are seen…

  • Building deep insight into our customers’ needs, to support sound judgments about the utility of our solutions.
  • Engaging our delivery teams in active exploration of solution options, and evaluation of trade-offs.
  • Regularly re-examining our priorities to optimize the team’s alignment with stakeholder and business demands.
Clarity

Transparency is a core Scrum principle, and a characteristic common to all effective POs. Our teams count on us to provide clarity in both content and context. Clarity comes not only from providing complete visibility into processes, priorities, and workflow, but also through crisp communication and shared understanding.

By context, I mean the how of our work — our agile practices, the way we sequence work, the basis for our priorities and decisions. By partnering with our Scrum Masters, peers, and leadership to provide clarity we reduce operational friction and give our teams a clear view of their environment.

Content describes the what of our work — user stories, requirements, customer insight, feedback, dependencies. Clarity about goals and constraints lets our delivery teams move forward with confidence. The more visibility we give our developers, the more efficient and nuanced they can be in delivering value.

A Product Owner’s fixation on clarity is evident when we:

  • Seek first to understand – our customers, stakeholders and team members – and then to be understood. (Acknowledgements to Stephen R. Covey.)
  • Make all the team’s work visible, through information radiators and transparent processes.
  • Fully convey the context, requirements and constraints that shape our team’s delivery.
  • Create accurate, unambiguous acceptance criteria to minimize the risk of misunderstandings about the work to be delivered.
Flow

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 

Artists and athletes have always understood the value of flow – that feeling of being so engaged in our practice that time is irrelevant, and we are one with the medium of our expression. Flow applies equally to knowledge work. Systems and human beings are most effective when they operate at a sustainable cadence, without arbitrary distractions. 

Because the Product Owner defines and sequences the work for their team, s/he has a dominant influence –good or bad – on the delivery team’s ability to maintain flow. Good flow is facilitated when the team can easily pull new items into their workstream and immediately begin implementing solutions. POs also respect the team’s flow state by minimizing interruptions, and helping teams quickly find answers as questions arise.

The Lean PO continuously employs agile practices that will sustain flow, such as:

  • Maintaining a deep backlog of well-refined work items for the team.
  • Continuously identifying dependencies that may impede the team’s work, and proactively seeking ways to resolve them.
  • Respecting our team’s need for focus by leveraging regularly scheduled, time-boxed meetings and minimizing ad-hoc demands.
  • Collaborating with Scrum Masters, development managers and other stakeholders to reinforce the team’s control of their work.
Waste

Nothing is more foundational to Lean practices than the discipline of identifying and eliminating waste.  More than half a century ago, the creators of the Toyota Production System identified the “7 wastes” as a core element of what would become “Lean Manufacturing”. These principles apply equally well to technology development, as artfully described by Mary and Tom Poppendieck and others.

In the technology development process, waste assumes many forms. The Lean PO is always vigilant for opportunities to remove wasteful effort.

We champion Lean and reduce waste when we:

  • Simplify our stories, requirements, and solutions. Remember, it’s our goal to maximize the amount of work not done!
  • Educate ourselves and our team on how to recognize waste.
  • Make continuous improvement a foundation of all our processes.
  • Recognize that time is our most precious resource and protect it vigorously.

I believe these Four Obsessions reflect the pillars that support any Agile framework. I find them to be a mutually-reinforcing set of principles that keep me on course as I navigate the day-to-day turbulence of leading an Agile team.

So now I’ll ask you, fellow Product Owners and agilists – what are your obsessions? Do they align with Value, Clarity, Flow and Waste… or do you focus elsewhere?

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