The bulk of my professional life has been spent in the field of product management and it has become my professional passion, even though my studies and original career goals were more aligned with operations. Now I’m going to tell you how I married the two together.
Bringing focus to chaos
In the hardware-focused world of Dell in the late 90s, software was regarded as a necessary evil, if it was regarded at all. While working in Dell’s Product Group, I had to straighten that mess out and bring order and much needed focus to the chaos. In so doing, I learned a lot about how important it is to align the end users’ needs and experiences with the offerings that bring the most financial value to the company. When you throw consumer software spaghetti on the wall, just waiting to see what sticks, the end result is a complete miss on customer needs. Without focus, you end up with poor attach rates, too many disjointed and unverified offerings, and no clear value proposition. But by reorganizing the products to offer a clear and simple set of recommended offerings aimed at the intended customer groups, we created a streamlined, positive experience and turned software into one of Dell’s top profit-generating business units.
When you throw consumer software spaghetti on the wall, just waiting to see what sticks, the end result is a complete miss on customer needs.
Following my experiences at Dell, I moved on to broader roles at much smaller software startup companies. As usually happens at startups, I wore several hats in the end-to-end process of bringing products to market, but when I joined Four Kitchens, my role changed, with almost all of my time now being devoted to web development project management.
But I haven’t lost focus on product ownership. Beyond management, product ownership helps tie together and inform so many of the other parts of the development process. When tough decisions need to be made about limiting scope, prioritizing what to build first, or simplifying an experience, it is helpful to have an internal product owner. Owners can assist the development team and the client to redirect focus back to the core value of the website. Product ownership within a software company is an obvious role—it provides a single contact who is tasked with owning the product and all aspects of how it relates to the customer. A product owner needs to understand the competition, product positioning, key features, and all the other elements of the product to ensure that it not only meets a need, but that it does so in a profitable and differentiated way.
Product ownership as client advocacy
But in a digital strategy firm, the need for internal product ownership is not as obvious. Our clients own their business and their product… why do we need an internal product owner in the Kitchen? Historically, our client contacts have served as the product owners on the project team. However, often the people we interact most frequently with are people in IT, content, or sales… The company’s true product owners are not always present, available, or well versed enough to actively guide the development process. If the client is hiring an outside development firm to build or redevelop their website, they often are not in the practice of translating the vision and into concrete user stories that will make up the team’s backlog. Even when a solid client-side product owner exists and interacts closely with the Four Kitchens team, our internal product owner can still act as a coach for the client: translating the process, asking the right questions, and keeping the scope-creep under control. When you work with Four Kitchens, your “4KPO” becomes the North Star that helps development stay the course, making sure every decision aligns with the ultimate destination.
It doesn’t matter how well you build software if you build the wrong things. Figuring out what to build (and what to build first) is the core job of the product owner. It’s difficult. It’s probably a full-time job. And your client already has one of those. —Patrick McConnell
The role of product ownership
Ideally, product owners in any digital strategy consultancy should be fully involved very early on in the relationship with a client to understand their specific needs. Often a client’s website has evolved slowly over time, piecemeal, and it is easier for the client to articulate problems to solve or features to add rather than define the vision of the website. The PO focuses the team to define this vision, ensuring that the proposed scope of the project is the right scope, and the vision is carried through to the development process. As Scrum Alliance member Patrick McConnell said, “It doesn’t matter how well you build software if you build the wrong things. Figuring out what to build (and what to build first) is the core job of the product owner. It’s difficult. It’s probably a full-time job. And your client already has one of those.”
Recently, Four Kitchens made the decision to change the way it handled product ownership. Rather than allowing the role to be filled informally by various members of the team, we now intentionally dedicate resources for product ownership. Formalizing this role sets expectations, internally and externally, right from the start of a project, so that our clients and our development teams understand the roles and responsibilities for each project. Product ownership as a dedicated role on a consultancy development team is the missing link in the full project chain, helping everyone stay focused on delivering a solid product that meets the client’s vision.
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