Choosing a Product Champion

07-13-22 Katie Jennings

Sparkbox was hired by a large company to develop a design system to support their many initiatives. Unfortunately, the chosen Product Champion was not positioned for success. We have recommendations on how you can avoid pitfalls like these.

For two years, Sparkbox worked closely with a billion-dollar legacy company in the midst of a digital transformation. We were engaged to support the development of a design system that should ultimately serve more than 20 products within this multi-faceted company. The scope of the project was intended to center on the evolution of a design system that would initially be developed hand-in-hand with a single product, but eventually have the capacity to serve many teams, products, and sites.

When we joined the project, our first concern was that there was not a clear Product Champion in place. As Drew mentions in his Product Champions article, a Product Champion isn’t about a title. They might be a very effective product manager, a technical lead, or even someone from UX, design, or marketing. The critical points are that this person is informed and empowered.

In the case of this project, we quickly realized that there were some significant issues with filling this role within this company. Several individuals claimed ownership of the product at different times, and the owner that was eventually identified, who should have become the Product Champion, was not set up for success. Here’s a little bit more about what we observed, and what we learned.

Lack of Vision

It’s very easy to say, ”We need an app.” Or, “We need a design system.” It’s much harder to actually pull together resources, set a roadmap, and start making progress towards a product that fulfills the organization’s objectives. With this client, the leader didn’t understand or even have access to the full vision for the project. They didn’t have the resources to cast a vision of success for a wide range of project stakeholders and contributors. So they couldn’t be effective in creating a planned approach, gathering the right team members, responding to user needs, etc. You can’t be a Champion without clarity. This is an organizational imperative.

Recommendations:

You can choose a Product Champion who has the seniority to access the vision of the organization. If so, this person has access to the full vision from the outset of the product. This Champion has all the information necessary to communicate the vision to a larger set of participants who are critical to the project’s success. They may also be more likely to have the pull within the organization to ensure that others really listen to the message and adopt a singular vision.

If you select a Product Champion who does not initially have access or involvement with the complete vision for the product, it’s critical that you make the necessary adjustments to bring this person into the fold. Give them all the information necessary to lead the team successfully. Invite them to meetings, make sure they have every scrap of documentation, and include them in every relevant conversation moving forward.

Lack of Communication

One of the valuable aspects of a design system is that it supports multi-disciplinary needs throughout the company. The person that this client designated as a product owner had no open lines of communication with any other parts of the company. Through no fault of their own, they were unable to lead because they weren’t in contact with the people who could have contributed to their success and that of the product—whether it was to engage them in contributing to the product or just to get feedback about their needs and expectations. They were a primary contact, but not a true Champion for the product.

Recommendation:

When you choose a leader for a software product, that person needs to be someone who is capable of and invested in communication that matches the scope of the product you’re building. Even if it’s not a design system—which is one of the most far-reaching projects to undertake—every product team needs to be connected to different disciplines, stakeholders, and users. The person you select as a Product Champion should have the time, ability, and initiative to make sure communication is strong and should be able to understand and synthesize multiple points of view.

Lack of Schedule, Budget, and Priorities

There are many things that a Product Champion is responsible for, but ultimately, they’re running a project and a team. That means being responsible for a schedule, a budget, and the priorities for the project. In this client instance, the person designated as a product owner was operating as more of an order taker than a leader. They didn’t have the ability or authority to flag and push back on changes, and they were focused on more of the tactical details than the bigger strategic picture. They didn’t have the experience or training to hold the reins that they had been given.

Recommendation:

The role of Product Champion requires both high-level strategy and the ability to break that strategy down into a working team and processes. If your organization is assigning someone who fits part of the bill but perhaps lacks experience in other ways, that’s ok! Just make sure to support that person with additional training and check-in as the work progresses. If this person is not proactively managing schedule, budget, and priorities, you may need to reset or offer additional assistance.

Choosing the Right Champion

As a digital partner, Sparkbox has a clear view of challenges like the ones our client faced in this case. Where possible, we try to help resolve issues like these. In this instance, our experience tells us that the client’s Product Champion wasn’t suited for or supported in the role. The product and the company would have been better served by a Champion with broader reach, a more strategic mindset, and the authority to manage timelines and processes more effectively. These aren’t easy conversations to have, but choosing the right Product Champion, and giving them the support they need, can really make a significant difference during a development project and beyond.

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