Facilitating product owner success in a corporate world

July 12, 2016

Author: Paul Richardson


Facilitating product owner success in a corporate world

Agile delivery frameworks are a perfect match for a startup or smaller company, with small teams and stakeholder groups able to use the fast feedback loop to effectively overcome challenges.  

However, Agile practises are also being adopted by project teams in large organisations more familiar with traditional, Waterfall style delivery practices. At a team level, the adoption of Agile in large organisations is fairly smooth, however wider organisational stakeholder groups still struggle to adapt to and support the Agile delivery method.

When looking at a basic Agile setup of Feature Teams, Iteration Manager and Product Owner, which role do we consider pivotal to Agile success in large organisations?

In my experience of large scale Agile in corporate organisations, it’s the Product Owner role which has the most influence on the success of the project.

When delivering a product in the corporate world, Product Owners are bound to encounter many external and internal pressures, including cultural impact and varied political standpoints. Multiple stakeholders across a broad organisation all want to have their say, make their own demands and impact. This boils down to a multitude of competing organisational requirements.

More often than not, different departments don’t have time to coordinate and align. This gives the impression of an “all care, no responsibility attitude” as they make their demands; “have you thought about this?”, “Don’t forget about that!”

Identifying and refining the true requirements of the project is left to the Product Owner – negotiating and balancing opposing demands. The Product Owner must stand strong and champion the objectives of the Product, filtering the various inputs to the Agile team via prioritisation on the product backlog

What does this all come back to? The definition of a Product Owner role is too simple in a complex corporate world. The Product Owner needs to own the vision, manage and prioritise the backlog while also supporting the agile team. However, in the corporate world their job too often becomes a complex mix of;

  • Politician
  • Diplomat
  • Salesperson
  • Business Analyst
  • Product SME

They navigate through the chaos of conflicting inputs and priorities and end up having to take the wider stakeholder group on the Agile journey.

It’s a tough role and executing it well doesn’t simply come down to whether you’ve got the right person for the job.  

For the Product Owner to succeed, they need an environment setup for success. I believe there are three key areas in which an organisation and the project can provide this:

  1. Empower the Product Owner. Product Owners must have management attention and sponsorship that comes from the right level. Most importantly, the organisation and stakeholders must trust the Product Owner and delegate the necessary decision-making authority to enable them to do their job. Too often we encounter situations where the Product Owner is unable to provide guidance to the Agile team, as they are forced to seek approval on feature prioritisation or scope decisions.
  2. Product Owner is a role. Being a Product Owner is not a side project or an extracurricular activity. A Product Owner needs to:
    - Own the Product Vision & Strategy
    - Collect and filter high level and detailed requirements
    - Create, maintain, elaborate and prioritise backlog items
    - Support the team throughout the Sprint

    In all instances, the Product Owner must be allocated to the role full time.

  3. Iteration Management support. In large scale Agile it’s easy for the Iteration Manager to get bogged down in just supporting the team. It’s a lot of work, and there are so many dependencies to manage that it can become all consuming. Often an ‘us vs. them’ mentality can develop between delivery and the business with the Product Owner being the face of the business. Sometimes we see that ‘us vs. them’ mentality start to manifest between the team and the Product Owner. This doesn’t work! The Iteration Manager needs to spend time assisting and coaching the Product Owner in their Agile practices and implementation, creating an environment of inclusion and collaboration.

Implementing Agile in a large organisation is challenging, and the Product Owner role is pivotal. Large organisations need to ensure that the role is afforded the right environment to maximise the probability of success.