In Praise of the (Agile) Product Owner

Episode 43 - 06 Jul 2016

Who has the toughest time "Being Agile"?

  • Is it the Dev Team?
  • Is it the Lead Developer?
  • What about the Business Owner?
  • Or is it... the Product Owner?

Arguably, it's the Product Owner that has the toughest job "being Agile". Building software in small, iterative cycles is easy to "sell" to a development team.

But it takes nerves of steel on behalf of the Product Owner to trust that she doesn't get stuck with a bare-bones partial product.

You've seen these guys before.

Question. Who has the toughest time being Agile?

Is it the Dev Team?


The Lead Developer?


The Business Owner?

Could be.

Or is it... (and I think it might be...)

The Product Owner.

Boxes and Walls

Hi this is Gary

Welcome to 'Development That Pays'.

I wanted to turn the spotlight on the Product Owner.

But I could't decide what to talk about

Then Vlad came to my rescue with this great comment

that gets right to the heart of one of the hardest aspects

of being a Product Owner.

"Problem now is that some of them do not upgrade, and continue to use the “boxes” to climb the wall…"

Clearly, that's going to need some context.

A recurring theme here on Development That Pays

are the twin concepts of

  • do the right thing, and
  • do the thing right

Way back in Episode 2, i used the metaphor of two walls

Each wall is a potential business opportunity.

And each ladder represent is a product.

What more important:

  • building a great ladder?
  • or, picking the right wall?

Well, any old ladder will get you up the wall


the walls lead to very different places.

So we can say that:

Picking the right wall is more important than building a great ladder.

Doing the right thing is more important that Doing the thing right.


There's a fatal flaw in the argument

And that's what we went on to talk about in Episode 3

From this point, both of the walls look the same.

From this point you can't see what's on the other side

So you've no choice but to climb up there and take a look.

It's Catch 22.

You need to pick the right wall...

But you can't pick the right wall

until you've climbed the wall

which you can't do


picking a wall!

One thing is for sure:

If we’re going to have to climb a wall that may turn out to be the wrong wall

Then this is no time for Do The Thing Right.

No, this is the time to get there quickly and cheaply

Certainly not an escalator

Nor a staircase.

A ladder would be a good choice

Or even - dare I say it - a pile of boxes.

Getting Stuck with the Boxes

We now have the context we need for Vlad's comment.

Vlad's concern is that we get stuck with the pile of boxes

... even after we've found the perfect wall.

Come with me now to a meeting.

The meeting was called by the Product Owner

She has an an idea for a new product.

She's invited the entire dev team.

to come and discuss a new product idea.

She walks up to the whiteboard and draws something that looks a lot like

an escalator

A discussion follows.

The dev team is clearly concerned about the scale of the task

At a certain point, the lead dev walks up to the whiteboard and says

What about if we start by building this...

... then we can come back and build this

... then this

... then this

From there it should be easy to build what you've asked for.

Quick aside

At this point,

I'd like you to take a moment and notice how you feel about this plan of action.

Are you comfortable with it?

Do you have concerns?

Back to the Meeting

My guess is that these guys [the developers] like the idea

For them, it's an easy sell:

This thing [the escalator] looks like a nightmare to code.

This thing [the pile of boxes] looks straightforward. Could be live by the end of the week.

Bish bash bosh.

What about the Product owner?

How does it look from her point of view?

The picture isn't nearly as rosy.

First of all, there's a big different between what she asked for and what she's going to get - at least in the short term

Then there's the "challenge" that version two is CONDITIONAL on the success of version one

(And version one looks so ropey that it's hard to see it being a success!)

And if the first version is a success, what then?

How long will it be before it can be built?

The Dev team have spare capacity now... but will they have spare capacity a month from now?

Hard to say.

And we haven't even talked about stakeholders.

If the Product Owner agrees to this course of action, her next job - when she leaves the meeting - will be to 'sell' the approach to various internal stakeholders.

None of which sounds like an fun day at the office to me.

So spare a thought for your friendly neighbourhood product owner.

It's no easy job.