The Product Owner or product leader position is one of the most demanded positions in the market today; most companies understand how critical it is to have someone that holds a clear view of the product and can prioritize user stories in the agile team.
But this is something that is not new; similar roles with some overlapping attributions have been present in our industry throughout the years: Product Manager, Product Officer, Project Manager and many more.
Long story short, a product leader position is necessary for an agile team, but product management has been there since long ago – and regardless of the methodology there have been success stories and failures in the past.
We will refer to a Product Leader in the text below, so we’re not tied to any specific methodology.
And what are the functions of a product leader? There are 2 main responsibilities, in my opinion, the product leader is responsible for bringing the product vision to a reality through the project execution and being a facilitator for all the parts involved in the development.
The point of this piece is to emphasize the features that are desirable in any professional standing in a product leadership position. Let’s review the factors that in my opinion are key to manage a product.
Product Leader responsibilities
“A product (or a service) is something that is relevant to a target audience, who is willing to pay for the added value that it provides.” – Yet another definition of Product
So simple right? – yet the 2-line sentence above is much trickier than it seems. A product leader must always have in his head the integral view of the product, its audience, how is it relevant – which need it satisfies, how will it be monetized and how value can be added – especially taking into consideration that competitors will never stop advancing either.
This mindset must be there 24/7 because any decision taken will have to be consistent with it, from prioritizing the features that are going to market first to validating that the UX/UI of an app is aligned with the tone and concept set by the marketing guys. A product decision maker holds the business model as the second most important criterion to lead the development of a product – only behind the product vision.
Another element of the global picture is your environment. What do your customers like? How do they think? Which are the trends and where the market is going? What is your competition doing? How are they different or how are they trying to beat you? — This set of questions should be a mantra throughout the whole product lifecycle; the product leader should be thinking about them periodically.
Finally, and tightly related to the environment, the last and most strategic line of thinking is always to know how will the product grow, what will it be tomorrow.
Are you familiar with the war between cab and Uber drivers? It’s been a recurrent topic in most of the western capitals for the last two years, and it’s ongoing. From a product/service perspective in 10 or 15 years, there will likely be NO drivers at all – not in a cab nor in Uber. The cars may not be roaming the streets but flying in the air. Uber is ALREADY working on that line, so they have already won – just my opinion.
One of the things I like the most about Apiumhub is that we are specialists in software architecture, scalability, and growth, so regardless of how small our projects are, a simple mobile app or just a web portal, we don’t just help but we think about the future, about what it will become. We see each one of our partners as potential global companies working worldwide – so we lay the foundations with that mindset, to make them easily scalable. This is a huge competitive advantage. We provide solutions for today and tomorrow.
Drive, Engagement, and Alignment
“The truest wisdom is a resolute determination.” – Napoleon Bonaparte (French badass)
Bringing a product from conception to market is a hard and complex task that involves a wide variety of people. A product leader must make sure that all these people are engaged and rowing in the same direction. Creating an excellent product is not something that can be batched, it is something rather close to craftwork that involves an artisan creating pieces of work that are treated like they were his/her own children. One key responsibility of a product leader is to keep the motivation of the team at a high level during the project execution.
Keeping the developers focused on a project can be harder than it seems, especially if the project is long. In my experience, the most effective tool to keep the team engaged is to provide a sense of purpose. A product leader must transmit the product vision and the reasons behind a product and a business model to the team and inspire them to share the product vision, so it becomes their own.
Another good practice when it comes to a sense of purpose is to set meaningful intermediate goals throughout the execution phase. Having milestones that correspond to features that can visually show an advance in the process is a very good practice from a motivational perspective, especially in the later stages of a project.
When it comes to the team it is also very important to celebrate and reward. Sincere acknowledgment of the work done is a morale boost for any worker in any position.
There is another part that is must be driven too, the stakeholders. The product stakeholders are the main source of feedback and approval of the project, it is a critical task of the product leader to keep them involved throughout the development. If the stakeholders are only involved at the beginning of the project to specify requirements and at the end of it to validate the results, the project will likely have a good amount of issues – they must be an active part during all the execution.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
“Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” – Brian Tracy (Motivational speaker)
According to most sources, lack of proper communication is one of the primary factors if not the main one in IT projects failures. This is a well-known topic that has been addressed since long time ago; let’s try to break down the list where a product lead must be especially careful.
Be honest and transparent. First and foremost. Be honest with every actor involved in the project. We’re all on the same boat, so we must share ups and downs. Information is power and sometimes people are tempted to hide some information for some people while disclosing it to another. In my experience, this doesn’t hold in the long run. A product leader must talk openly and honestly to any part of the project asking for info. A product leader must have always the door open and be available to discuss anything. This brings agility in the decision making, but most importantly, it brings trust.
Listen. There’s the saying that we are given 2 ears and one mouth for a reason. That is even more important in a product leadership position. A product leader is a glue that brings together the marketing or product experts with the development team. That means that he’s not the expert on the technical side, nor on the marketing side. Listening, and making the teams talk to you, is a task that should be ever going. Your development team is the one who knows the product implementation best and your stakeholders are quite fonder about the market needs and motivations. Listening to them will help the product leader take better decisions.
The snowball effect. Tightly related to being honest is also the fact to prevent problems from escalating. If there is a delay in the development part, warn the stakeholder. If there’s a change of scope, talk to the development team. Communicating things as soon as possible allows your team to help you avoid problems escalating and makes them aware of the potential caveats that can be involved. And going a little bit down to earth point of view, there are 2 crucial parts that must be handled carefully.
Project requirements. Call it requirements, user stories or list of functionalities. The product leader must be extra exhaustive when writing user stories, they must be clearly written, detailed and have clear acceptance criteria. This is what I find most difficult personally. The point of writing proper requirements is to take any uncertainty out of the equation when it comes to the development. This does not mean that the development team should behave like code monkeys that just implement what is written in the requirements, it means that they have a clear task defined and that any opinion or improvement suggestion that they formulate (they have to) will have a solid foundation.
Manage expectations. Also, very related to being honest, but especially with the stakeholders. Keeping the expected value as similar as possible to the delivered value is the product leader task. The product leader must ensure that the stakeholder receives and expects exactly what is delivered, in terms of timings, features, and quality. Don’t make promises or commit to something that will not be able to be delivered.
Adapt to changes
“I had a plan, but life happened.” – me
The development of an IT project is often subject to external changing factors. The release of a breakthrough by the competitors, a change in the market trends, etc. … The role of the product leader in this kind of situations is to evaluate these facts, stay permeable to them and act accordingly. External changes may impact the development in form of changes of scope or even requirements, but the faster and better a company reacts to that, the better time to market and product acceptance is.
A product leader must always stay on top of many things, one of them is what is happening outside of the company. To give you an example, think about Research in Motion (RIM). If it doesn’t ring a bell, think about Blackberry. Blackberry failed to spot where the market was heading – they thought the key was the touchscreen and they got rid of the keyboard, but the fact was that the market was demanding apps.
When a product is having success and its financial results are good is when a product leader must stay more alert. A product that is doing well means that you have a target on your back – the competition is chasing you and your alternatives are focused on besting your product.
You may be impacted by improvements or new features of other competitors in the middle of a development cycle. Keep calm, try to be objective and estimate how this change can impact you or the market. And consider adapting to this change, whether it is by changing your scope asap or in the following iterations.
You may have noticed that I have (almost) not mentioned agile or any agile concept anywhere in this text. In my opinion, the specifics of a Product Owner or Product Leader position, from an agile standpoint, must be an extension of all the above. Concepts like prioritization, grooming and so on should always come after the skill set mentioned in this article.
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