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Let’s Talk: Product Ownership

03-25-20 Erin Bullock

Product ownership helps projects succeed. Learn what product owners do, how it’s different from project management, and how they lead project prioritization.

Have you ever been working on a project that seemed to have everything going for it at the start? The effort was based on a great idea, had strong executive support, and had an amazing project team—yet the project struggled. It either took way too long to build because the team strove to perfect every component, or the project was finally complete and ready to go live only to have the client say that it no longer met their needs. I have been there. Both as a client and as a project team member. There is nothing more discouraging or frustrating than spending months of time and effort building a solution only to have to start over! 

In a constantly changing business and technical landscape, how is a development project supposed to succeed? Enter the role of the product owner! Increasingly, development teams are turning to an agile development framework to meet the challenges of an ever-evolving business landscape and to mitigate the risk of the unknown. But this approach only works if business interests are constantly represented in development efforts. To fill this vital need, teams have started designating a product owner to represent the customer on the development team. 

Maybe you have been thrust into the product owner role yourself, or maybe you are an executive trying to understand how to make your projects more successful. A product owner can be crucial to taking a project from conception to successful launch. So let’s talk about what makes a great product owner. 

What Does a Product Owner Do?

Sparkbox has defined this role as someone who should bridge all disciplines, have the respect and trust of the key stakeholders, seek to represent these disciplines through the course of the project, and ultimately make prioritization decisions that serve the business with their cross-functional experience and feedback. Because of this broad definition, product owners come from various backgrounds with diverse expertise and experience. But they are united in their mission to make the best product possible. 

Many people think product owners are essentially project managers with decision-making power. In some organizations, the PO and PM can be the same person. However, the roles are very different. While project managers help drive timelines, keep team members on track, and manage the project budget, the product owner continually redefines the development priorities as new information comes to light. This constant prioritization minimizes churn and helps ensure that every dollar of development effort contributes to something of lasting value for the organization.

In this issue of Let’s Talk, our articles will answer questions like these:

  • What does project prioritization look like?

  • Should a product owner be involved in creating design systems?

  • What skills should a product owner bring to the team?

  • How does a product owner help the team find the right balance between planning for the future and remaining agile?

Articles We’ve Written

Modern Enterprise Ecommerce

Drew walks us through Sparkbox’s Discovery process. Through Discovery with a new partner, we work together to understand the nature and depth of the project. It is a crucial time to align the teams’ visions for the upcoming work. Digital projects are often huge in scope with very tight timelines, as was the case for Shoes for Crews. 

The product owner, or in this case, the entire project team, often has to make tough decisions about what will make up the Minimally Viable Product (MVP). Project teams are usually exploding with ideas for what they can do to make their product even better. A key responsibility of a product owner is to take these ideas and align them with business goals and user data to determine what will make the biggest impact for their organization. I’ve often heard people say that the role of a product owner is to make everyone unhappy equally. While not the sunniest outlook, there is some truth to this description. Product owners have to be laser-focused on the goals of the project and must continually cut through what could be done in order to determine what should be done. 

While additional features can be added over the life of a product, the MVP should meet the most crucial customer needs before going live. The less complex the MVP, the quicker the product can go to market.

How to Get Started with a Design System

Design systems have been a major topic of discussion for many organizations in the last few years. While having a central location for all digital design elements and web components is extremely appealing, implementing and maintaining a design system brings many challenges. This article highlights some lessons learned from teams that have implemented design systems. 

One key lesson was the importance of having a business stakeholder bought into the project at the very beginning. This individual can help unify the team as the design system is created and implemented. Design systems centralize decision making, taking teams that often work autonomously and forcing them to collaborate. Because they have a foot in all the worlds that collide in a design system—business needs, creative and branding interests, as well as the needs of the development team—product owners can act as a conduit to bring these parties together and continually re-unify them.

Adding Value to a Full-Stack App Through Continuous Discovery Case Study

Agile projects place a premium on iterative work and continuous feedback. When we began our work with Aperian Global, we sought to help them become a more iterative software company. This case study walks through exactly how we did this, including how to juxtapose the value of planning against the knowledge that we will continually be learning more about the project every day. 

By progressively elaborating on planned epics, we were able to take the latest business insights and apply them to the remaining work. This kind of continual iteration requires a product owner to be the living embodiment of the project’s overarching goals. They will be the champion for the team’s initial vision when challenges and new information surface.  

Resources We Love

Check out these additional resources we love that discuss the role of the product owner.

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A portrait of Vice President of Business Development, Katie Jennings.

Katie Jennings

Vice President of Business Development