The product owner role is extremely challenging for most organizations to fill. It is also the role which has the greatest impact on achieving expected delivery outcomes. An average delivery team might still be able to successfully launch a product or service even if it is late, over budget or not at the highest level of quality. But if the product or service itself is lacking key requirements which stakeholders need, it will never succeed.
Sufficient capacity, knowledge and empowerment are needed to succeed in this role, but every time I teach an agile foundations class and ask the participants whether their companies are able to meet all three of these requirements for assigning product owners to their most important value streams, very rarely do I get an unqualified “Yes!”.
As such, it is of limited value to insist that all of these prerequisites must be met for companies wishing to move to adaptive delivery approaches, otherwise they are unlikely to gain momentum for their transformations.
So if compromises have to be made, where should we stand firm?
With limited capacity, a product owner is unlikely to have sufficient time to engage with stakeholders in a timely manner to understand their needs and wants. They might not be able to give the delivery team sufficient time to help them understand what needs to be built and why. While this can result in delivery delays and might generate some stakeholder and team dissatisfaction, if expectations are managed well and if the product owner prioritizes the stakeholders they meet with, the risks can be managed.
A lack of empowerment isn’t ideal as it could demoralize a product owner and might reduce the respect which delivery team members have for the role. However, this is again a case of expectation management. At the start of the project, if the product owner and team members know that key product content decisions will have to be made by senior management, then they might plan accordingly by having regularly scheduled reviews with senior leaders to build a cadence for decision making.
But what if the product owner has insufficient domain or organizational knowledge? Lacking organizational awareness, they won’t know which stakeholders need to be engaged regularly, nor would they have well established relationships with them to effectively negotiate product content. Lacking domain awareness, they will lose credibility with the delivery team members and with other stakeholders. While it might be possible to pair them up with a domain subject matter expert, how do we make up for the lack of organizational awareness?
This is why it is usually not a good idea to bring in an external consultant as a product owner. They might have ample capacity and be legitimately empowered by their leaders to make decisions, but if they don’t know what they don’t know, their product decisions won’t be effective. If the company is in a capacity crunch, it is better to free up the best possible employee to fill the product owner role and back fill their other responsibilities using an external consultant.
Building the right product in the right way requires the right people.