4 Focuses for Lean Product Owners

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Lean product management is key to delivering effective and customer-focused products. Let’s break down why lean product management matters and the themes you need to focus on to excel as a Product Owner.

What is Lean Product Management?

Lean product management means applying the principles and practices of Lean to the digital product development lifecycle, helping organizations deliver the right products to customers more quickly.

Lean product management ensures teams focus on building and delivering the right things at the right time. Product managers bear the responsibility of determining what, exactly, those things are.

How Do We Excel As Product Owners? 

As Product Owners, we listen to our customers to learn their needs, define a backlog of user stories to work on, keep the backlog items prioritized, and develop the product roadmap.  

Beyond splitting user stories, defining acceptance criteria, and other elements of the product owner role, how can we further use our skills to maximize business value?  

Mining history’s trove of proven practices can help inform our own discipline of product ownership. 

Combining these key concepts from Lean and Agile lets us build a framework of mutually-reinforcing principles for successful product ownership. Good Product Owners are Agile – but great Product Owners are Agile and Lean. 

What are the Key Focuses of Lean Product Owners?

To be an Agile and Lean Product Owner and raise your game to a higher level of mastery, you need to focus on the following elements:

  1. Value
  2. Clarity
  3. Flow
  4. Waste

1. Value

This should come as no surprise: a focus on delivering value is 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

2. 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.

Context: 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: the what of our work — user stories, requirements, customer insight, feedback, and 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.
  • 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.

3. 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 one’s 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, they have 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.

4. 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 “seven wastes” as a core element of what would become “Lean Manufacturing.”

Identifying and addressing wastes remains important today and applies equally well to technology development through the “seven wastes” of software development

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.

How Can AIM Consulting Support Your Agile Framework?

At AIM Consulting, we believe these Four Obsessions reflect the pillars that support any Agile framework. The mutually-reinforcing set of principles keeps Product Owners on course as they navigate the day-to-day turbulence of leading an Agile team.

Our enterprise agility experts help organizations adapt existing methods and introduce best practices to realize the full benefits of agile, ultimately delivering customer value and improving efficiency.

Need Help Reinforcing Principles for Successful Product Ownership?

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