The role of an external product owner

How do you maximise the value of a product which you don’t technically own?

When I joined 383 just less than a year ago, I can still remember feeling a little perplexed when one of my first assignments was to define, “What is a product owner at 383?”

“Easy!” I thought. To me, the role of a product owner was pretty well standardised. In fact Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland – who created the Scrum methodology – set out a clear, unambiguous definition. Surely the answer lay there?

Let’s start with the opening sentence…

The product owner is responsible for maximising the value of the product resulting from work of the development team.

Ken Schwaber & Jeff Sutherland

Fortunately in my previous roles, as well as in my time at 383, this has remained true. So, one sentence in and we’re still aligned! The next part is where things start to become less clear.

How this is done may vary widely across organisations, scrum teams, and individuals.

Ken Schwaber & Jeff Sutherland

My main challenge was to figure out how being in a studio setting, working on behalf of clients rather than working in-house, would affect my role.

The first month

My first client at 383 was Busy Bees Nurseries – the biggest childcare provider in the UK – working on the parent version of the UP app (which you can read more about here). They are an awesome client to work for with a great vision to give every child in their care the best start in life, so naturally I was delighted to be joining the team.

As I settled in, it started to dawn on me that, from an organisational perspective, I wasn’t the true product owner. As a digital product studio, it’s our clients who have true ownership of the product. As their digital partner, 383’s role is to bring their vision to life and ensure their products deliver as much value as possible.

So, as a studio-side product owner, how do you maximise the value of a product which you don’t technically own, and don’t have ultimate authority for? Therein lies the challenge I’d so quickly overlooked.

Over the next few months I started to figure out my place in the world, so for anyone stepping into a product owner role in a studio or agency, or any PO role for that matter, I hope the following tips help you hit the ground running.

Become the champion of the user

As a product owner, your biggest responsibility is to be the champion of the user. That means getting out there and meeting your current users, potential future users and rejectors as soon as possible. In order to integrate into the team and begin playing your part, getting to know your users is priority number one, especially if the team is already established.

This is even more important in a studio setting. Your client’s domain knowledge will almost certainly outmatch yours, but if you are the single most knowledgeable person about the issues your users are having right now, people will begin looking to you for answers.

As a product owner, your biggest responsibility is to be the champion of the user.

User research does not have to be complicated. It’s more about listening than trying to ask the perfect question. The important thing is to get out there and do it – meet your users, empathise with them, understand what jobs they are trying to do, their struggles, their world outside of the product or service you’re offering, and bring all that knowledge back to your team.

Own the vision

A great product vision helps keep the team (and yourself!) focused when the going gets tough. It’s easy for product teams to feel overwhelmed by the number of competing feature requests, given the limited time and resources available. When a client comes to us to build a product, it’s our responsibility to help shape that product vision and bring it to life.

As a product owner, it is your responsibility to make that product vision clear in the eyes of everyone in your team. This shouldn’t be a one time thing; reinforcing the product vision helps keep motivation high and prevents the team from sweating the small stuff. There are a number of way of bringing the product vision to life:

  • Play back stories from your user interviews. Let the team hear about users’ hopes, dreams and struggles first hand.
  • Create a fictional customer testimonial for the product you’re about to create. This helps the team imagine what success might look like and give everyone a positivity boost.
  • Spend time reviewing new designs with the whole team and focus on the benefits of new features to your user experience.
  • Make it visible! Having the vision on display on the walls of your workspace is far more impactful that being filed away in presentations and reports.

A client-agency relationship should be a partnership, and a clear product vision which both parties have helped shape and bought into will allow for open conversations when difficult decisions need to be made. By having a clear product vision, it becomes far easier to assess what features will help achieve that vision.

What’s the problem?

When a client comes to us with a request to develop a product or feature, we can use the fact we are not domain experts to our advantage. Asking lots of ‘stupid’ questions, checking our understanding, and asking for things to be clarified and paraphrased means that we can take a step back and from the solution that’s been presented to us and really hone in on what the user’s problem is.

As a third party, we can also bring fresh perspectives to potential solutions. Having no previous experience of this is how we do things here means that we can come up with ideas that would have never been considered previously, or challenge the status quo if we think there’s a better way of doing things. These are key skills that you can bring to the table as an external product owner.

Sprinting

Armed with information about our users, a clear product vision, objectives and metrics, any product owner should be well placed to lead the team through ideating and experimenting their way to a well refined backlog.

Our Busy Bees product team adopted a dual track agile methodology. This allows us to ideate rapidly on early feature concepts and test them in real nurseries with real staff to see if what we’ve designed is user-friendly and valuable, before adding them to the product backlog.

A clear benefit of doing this as an external product owner was that I could speak to nursery staff as someone with no direct relation to Busy Bees. They could tell me and the team their frustrations and honest feedback without fear of judgement from someone working within their own company. This meant we would come back to Busy Bees with (anonymised) insights that they might not otherwise have heard.

Fast forward

I feel like I’ve reinforced some really good habits over the last year. The nature of our business means that any product owner needs to be incredibly clear about what the team needs to focus on and why. This has forced me to really hone my skills in capturing the world through the eyes of our users, and sharing that new-found knowledge with the wider team.

I’ve also developed a heightened sense of responsibility to ensure that our efforts as a product team create as much value as possible. Any time that we spend working on a product costs our clients money, and we want to see that investment deliver success. The Busy Bees UP app has recently been nominated for Product Innovation of the Year at the Real IT awards, and it’s great to see all that hard work being recognised! 💪

 

Want to know more about our work with Busy Bees? Read our case study for the full story.

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