Your “product” driver has arrived

Written by Brian Ganas
On August 1, 2022

Being assigned as a Product Owner feels a little bit like being handed the keys to a brand new car only to watch your driving instructor get in after you and immediately ask if you remember how to activate the defroster. The excitement and adrenaline you feel knowing you’ve been handed a position of authority is somewhat dashed as soon as you realize you’re not really in control — not really.

Product Owners, based on the guidelines of Scrum, are to be trusted with full autonomy and exclusive decision-making regarding the product they are in charge of. But it becomes very clear in reality that Product Owners are bound to many of the same limitations we all face in life — there is usually someone giving us direction that we need to follow. Executives, clients, users, all sorts of parties play a role in dictating what goes into a product — their wants, needs, and directives are usually not easily dismissed in cases of disagreement.

Becoming the Driver

Based on my own experiences, I shifted my mentality about being a Product Owner. Here’s how I view it. Yes, I hold the keys to the car. I control my speed, my lane changes, my negotiation with traffic, etc. I am in full control of that vehicle. But rather than driving wherever I and only I want to go, instead I think of myself more like a rideshare driver. I’ve picked up a passenger who has given me a destination, along with a few other directives — spoken and unspoken. My job as the driver, or as the Product Owner, is to deliver my passenger to their destination while meeting other expectations they’ve laid out for me. BUT, I am still in control.

I will have to use practical knowledge to drive the app to the destination, identifying roadblocks and the most efficient routes I can use to get there. I will need to identify and follow detours when they come up. I will have to follow local regulations to ensure I am not violating laws.

I will have to use my softer skills to identify the type of journey my customer wants from me. Do they want frequent, verbal updates on our progress? Do they want to sit in silence and only raise an objection when something appears to deviate from their expectations? Do they want to handle me like a partner or a vendor of a service who is paid to do what they say? Do they want to stop at Taco Bell on the way? All of these questions require answers, though I am not always able to have my customer directly answer them for me. I have to infer and identify those answers myself.

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As Product Owners, we remain in the driver’s seat, but we need to remember we’re here to provide a service for someone else. We’re trusted to deliver the product, to bring us to our destination, but we may need to explain our process or justify the decisions we make. When we make a turn the customer wasn’t expecting, or take a different route than they’re used to, we have to utilize our expertise and explain why this is the right decision. We need to be open to customer feedback; they may know things we don’t know.

Being a Product Owner should be viewed as a partnership as much as the service rideshare drivers offer us. There is no explicit right or wrong way to conduct the work, but there are rules that have to be followed and courtesies that have to be extended. Product Owners are in control but we must never forget that we are here to service our customers. They rely on us, on our expertise, and our guidance to get them the solution they need. We rely on them to give us useful direction, fill in gaps in our knowledge, and help us deliver an exceptional customer service experience. We should always remember the significance and the importance of that partnership.

Hold the keys to the car with pride, Product Owner. Let’s get our customers home safely.