As more organizations dip their toes into the ‘agile pool’, it’s important to continuously analyze and assess the customer’s needs to maintain a competitive or market advantage.

In organizations that still rely on more traditional approaches for project and program delivery, this should be happening already. Business analysts (or comparable) are typically assigned to assess and document many functional requirements from customers before working with technical subject matter experts to translate. While useful, this approach doesn’t enable agility and impedes an organization’s ability to identify and respond to changing customer and market needs.

In some cases, it’s also possible that organizations stand up ‘customer experience’ teams who, in part, dedicate their time to better understanding a customer’s journey to identify new, better, or more desirable products and services. This, too, can be effective, but depending on the timing, frequency, and level of expertise involved, it’s possible that data captured may not articulate the real-time and nuanced perspectives of the actual customer.

In these cases, to empower and enable a better understanding of what a customer truly wants and expects, there is one role in ruling them all—the Product Owner.

What exactly is a Product Owner?

As the name implies, the Product Owner represents the product vision and voice of the customer. In essence, they “own” the customer’s requirements.

While Product Owners can be anyone from anywhere, the most successful Product Owners have a clear understanding of what customers want and expect. Product Owner roles typically align with business-facing departments like Marketing, as they position to identify and articulate the customer’s point of view.

From a more tactical perspective, the Product Owner is responsible for translating the needs, wants, and desires of target customers into user stories that prioritize and shared with the development teams responsible for bringing target capabilities and products to life.

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These user stories are then refined and provided to Scrum teams who trace the functionality and translate into technical requirements to meet the criteria. A Product Owner’s value shines when we further define acceptance criteria, or a “definition of done”, to ultimately ensure that the software and delivery teams truly grasp and deliver the right value at the right time.

In traditional Scrum environments, the Product Owner is one of the primary trinity roles that help ensure that teams are clear on what the customer expects. By partnering with the Scrum Master, mature teams can help define requirements and translate them into consistent value delivered to the customer. By collaborating with Solution or Technical Leads, Product Owners help ensure that they are aligned on the big picture and tuned in to the right offerings for the customers and markets they represent.

The Value of Product Ownership

Organizations that support fully dedicated Product Owners stand to benefit the most, but even part-time Product Owners can help organizations maintain a critical link to customer needs and expectations. Product Owners have a direct line to the downstream users and consumers who benefit from the software or capabilities develop, and they can maintain a laser focus on sourcing and communicating this business value to the supporting teams. This provides an immediate boost to backend software and IT teams because they can trust the requirements; they give and focus on the technical solution. In turn, Product Owners can help clarify what to expect when functional capabilities or desired outcomes are not exact.

Additionally, while IT shops worldwide continue to evolve, it is scarce to have software developers that have a deep understanding of the house’s business side. While IT shops excel at developing the code behind the scenes to make things happen, we must create and craft products and experiences innately and intrinsically in line with the customers’ wants and desires.

So, What Makes a Good Product Owner?

Like any role, Product Owners can draw significantly on their personal experience and expertise to live into the role. But in general, some essential characteristics will help ensure success, especially for folks that are new to the role:

Be Empathetic – Just Listen!

Successful Product Owners embrace the role by understanding the needs of the customers or market segments they represent. It’s not uncommon for Product Owners to actively participate in customer discovery activities, user experience workshops, and other customer-focused exercises to walk in the shoes of their customers. This helps build a stake in the game and ensure they truly understand their customer’s perspectives.

Own the Vision (and the Backlog)

For several reasons, software and delivery teams can become confused about what is desired or expected. This is the Product Owner’s time to shine; By concentrating on the business value opportunities and staying plugged into the organization’s strategic drivers, Product Owners formulate the vision for realizing the business value and translate that vision into achievable outcomes. Delivery teams benefit by having an exact, prioritized list of requirements that encompasses the value target.

Sponsor and Accept

While the Scrum Master protects and supports the team, the Product Owner protects and supports the business value. When delivery teams are ready to demo working software, code, or solutions, it is the Product Owner’s responsibility to accept their work if it meets the customer’s requirements. If target outcomes or deliverables don’t meet, the Product Owner helps steer the delivery teams and provide feedback to get them back on track for the next iteration.

Risk vs. Reward

Organizations that do not have dedicated Product Owners risk inconsistent value delivery. Inconsistency can not only impact an organization’s bottom line but the happiness of its customers as well.

While it’s possible for some backend support teams to function without having dedicated Product Ownership, Scrum teams and organizations may lose focus on the real value proposition when delivering software or deploying solutions. Additionally, while organizations can achieve some level of success without formally observing the role, Product Owners are critical to a business’s success and organizational agility. Without dedicated Product Owners owning the product visions and representing the customer’s ever-changing needs, fully realizing the benefits of business agility stifle.

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Organizations that commit to dedicated Product Owners are drawing a line in the sand. For the most valuable software, services, and capabilities to be delivered, Product Owners must represent and understand the customer’s needs. By maintaining a pulse on what customers value the most, organizations help ensure that they are creating products and experiences that customers want, trickling down into more significant revenue, market penetration, and customer satisfaction.

Is your organization tapping into the Power of Product Ownership? Radiant Digital has personnel and expertise to help your organization deliver great products and customer experiences. For help scaling and maturing your product delivery pipeline, contact Radiant Digital at [].

by Frank Cannistra, Radiant Digital

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