Developing Strong Product Owners
In my last article I discussed the role of the leader of the product organization. I heard back from more than a few product leaders that it served to remind them that they weren’t doing as much as they knew they should be doing to build the strength of their product team, and I was asked if I could share some of the tools I use to help with this.
I want every product leader to feel considerable urgency and importance around this need. Your company needs the strongest product team possible, and if you don’t develop your team and provide growth opportunities, there are other companies that will. I have always been a big believer in the old adage that “people join a company but leave a manager”.
This note discusses the technique that I use and advocate for providing a framework for ongoing skills assessment and development. I have always called this a development plan, but for some companies that term is used for when you have a problem employee that must improve. While this tool is also useful for that case, I mean for this tool to be used in the very positive sense of helping to develop strong product owners on an ongoing basis, with every employee.
This skills assessment and development plan is structured in the form of a gap analysis. The purpose is to identify areas of development and to make clear the degree to which performance may need improvement along a specific dimension. As such, there are a set of criteria, each with two ratings. The first rating is an assessment of where the employee should be in this skill (i.e. how important it is), and the second rating is an assessment of where the employee currently performs on this scale (i.e. his ability).
Not all skills are equally important, and not all gaps are equally significant, and this mechanism is intended to help focus the attention where it is needed.
I have categorized the dimensions into “knowledge,” “process skills,” and “individual skills.” I include a short description of each dimension below but if any of the areas are unclear there are typically articles in the SVPG article archive covering each.
I have also included my personal view on importance rating for a typical mid-level product owner. However, I encourage each manager to adjust the importance ratings depending on your particular culture, industry, team and product, and also on the level of position (e.g. Senior-level Product Owner has a much higher bar than an Associate-level Product Owner).
On the rating scale, 0 indicates not important (or not strong) and 10 indicates extremely important (or very strong).
User/Customer Knowledge (10) – Is the product owner the company acknowledge expert on his target users/customer?
Industry/Domain Knowledge (10) – What is the product owner’s knowledge of the industry and domain?
Product Knowledge (10) – What is the level of knowledge of the product owner’s product?
Technology Knowledge (8) – What is the level of knowledge of the underlying technology? How current is his technology knowledge?
User Experience Design Knowledge (7) – How knowledgeable is the product owner on the topics of user experience design? Does he understand the various competencies within UX and does he appreciate and fully utilize this team?
Business and Financial Knowledge (7) – Does the product owner understand the economics and financial dynamics of his product?
Customer Discovery Process (7) – Customer discovery includes customer interviewing skills, opportunity assessments and understanding of customer development programs.
Product Discovery Process (9) – This is all about getting to minimum viable product. This includes both qualitative techniques including user prototypes and user testing, as well as quantitative techniques including live-data prototypes and split testing.
Product Optimization Process (9) – These are the skills to rapidly improve and refine existing products especially with optimization techniques and A/B testing.
Product Development Process (7) – Does the product owner have a deep understanding of the product development process (e.g. Scrum) and understand his critical role in creating and managing the backlog of work?
Team Collaboration Skills (10) – How effectively does the product owner work with the lead developer and the lead designer? Is it a collaborative relationship? Is there mutual respect? Is the product owner involving the lead developer and designer early enough and providing them direct access to customers?
Product Evangelism Skills (9) – How effectively is the product owner sharing the vision for the product and motivating the full product team as well as the various stakeholders and others in the company that must contribute to the product in one way or another?
Time Management Skills (8) – How well does the product owner manage his time? Is he able to ensure he has sufficient time to work on the critically important topics, or is he using most of his time on daily fire fighting? Is he fully utilizing his project manager/ScrumMaster?
Stakeholder Management (7) – How good is the product owner at managing his stakeholders across the company? Do they feel like they have a true partner in product that is genuinely committed to their business success?
Leadership Skills (6) – The product owner does not actually manage anyone, but they do need to lead, influence and motivate people, so leadership skills are important.
Community Management (5) – What is the product owner’s skill in community management and gentle deployment techniques?
Holistic View of Product (5) – Does the product owner strive to maintain a holistic view of product and ensure that the end-to-end experience is strong?
Once you have defined the importance rating for each of these dimensions, you can now access each product owner as to where they are in terms of each of these dimensions, and therefore identify any gaps.
The skills assessment is just the first part. The second part is to take the areas of the biggest gaps, and then for the manager to identify a set of actions for the product owner to develop his skills in that area. If a skill, such as “Product Discovery Process” is a 9 in importance, yet the person’s current skill level is a 5, then there is a fairly significant gap for a very highly ranked item. As the manager, you can now provide this product owner with training, reading or exercises intended to develop their skills in product discovery.
For the development plan section, try to focus on the top 3 areas. After progressing on these, the employee can move on to the next most important areas.
Also, once an employee has successfully closed the gaps, it is an ideal time to show them how the dimensions and the importance ratings move for the next position (or for other types of positions), and they can set about developing and demonstrating the skills necessary for a promotion.
Be sure to sit down with each product owner no less than once a month to discuss progress on the development plan components and to adjust the skill level. Especially strong people managers discuss this topic weekly.
Finally, you might be wondering how this sort of skills assessment and development plan relates to annual performance reviews. In general, I find the way most companies implement performance reviews to be of little use in terms of developing a strong team. Sadly they are more about compliance and pay administration.
You may have to comply with your HR department’s requirements in terms of annual reviews, but just realize that these are in no way an adequate substitute for active, ongoing, engaged development of each team member’s skills. The good news is that if you are actively managing the skills assessment and the development plan as I’m describing here, then the annual review fire-drill is typically easy.