Being a product owner

Craig Cockburn
3 min readOct 14, 2018

Key aspects of being a product owner include knowing what belongs on your backlog and when to say no and knowing what should belong on your backlog and how to prioritise it — discovering the unknown unknowns. Techniques such as Weighted Shortest Job first can help with prioritisation.

To form and evolve a backlog a product owner might spend around 2/3 of their time outward facing to stakeholders to understand requirements and gather information to help prioritise requirements.

In order to prioritise we need some prioritisation based framework including knowing the Cost of Delay. If you put something top of the backlog, it’s helpful to know the cost of pushing everything else down and having to wait.

To support decision making we prefer empirical data. Scrum is an empirical framework. Empirical data is valuable evidence which supports decision making. However within the Complex space which agile works best in (especially Complex Adaptive), then there is often a lack of empirical data therefore experimentation is essential to turn hypothetical data into empirical data and support decision making. In doing so, we mitigate the risks associated with working in the complex space where outcomes are uncertain. To facilitate decision making the product owner should know which data is empirical and which is not, in order that hypotheses around empirical data can be validated and the risks of uncertainty can be reduced. An experimental culture using a short effective feedback loop is essential to drive out these risks. Fast feedback is more valuable than fail fast as feedback is valuable whether it is good or chance to stop and reflect.

In order to fully take advantage of the wisdom of teams, we need to have a culture of servant leadership. We do not influence culture directly. We influence the levers around which culture grows and evolves. We do not tell a tree how to grow, we give it a nurturing environment in which it is able to succeed. This is how culture works. In order to evaluate what type of culture is present just now and if the teams are empowered then Decision Making cards are useful. You can use these to decide what looks like servant leadership and what looks like command and control then you can compare it to how you work to evaluate where you are and then have a conversation around where you want to be. Useful information here is “Pivotal Conversations”. The cards are a useful tool to help you assess where your culture is just now. This can help to clarify whether you have empowered teams and are you approaching agility which should be helping you to meet the organisational goals that agility is seeking to achieve. We are not seeking to do agile or be agile, we are using agile to help meet relevant organisational goals.

This is why an agile culture is essential to embedding the agile mindset. However, it is not a mindset we need it is the mindset and associated behaviours together in support of the relevant organisational goals.

I’m thinking of writing a book because so many people struggle with the above. Comments welcome. See also Strategy Maps.

Further topics to research/ “Weighted shortest job first”, “Cost of Delay” , “Cynefin”, WSJF,

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Craig Cockburn

Freelance IT Professional, Lean Agile Coach. Wrote UK's first guide to getting online. Non Exec Director. From Dunblane, Perthshire. www.craigcockburn.com