One year ago today I made the move from heading up Sainsbury’s Digital Corporate Affairs to Sainsbury’s Digital and Technology division and started my new life as a Product Owner.
I’d always thought of myself as a bit of a geek with a great passion for the web and digital so I was very excited (and a year later, I still very much am!) to be given the opportunity to tackle this new challenge.
To celebrate my one year anniversary as a Product Owner, I thought I’d list the lessons that have stuck with me.
1. Ask Questions Rather Than Saying ‘No’
Ideas and feature requests for your product will come from all over. As a new Product Owner, my first reaction was to say yes to everything. While that kept people happy in the short term, I was soon faced with a massive backlog of stories and no way to deliver them all.
Rather than saying ‘yes’ immediately, responding by asking questions is a useful tool. It helps me understand more about the request. I can dig a bit deeper and learn about why they think something is a good idea for my product. What do they think it will achieve? How do they envisage it working? What are they looking to achieve? You get the idea.
If an idea makes it through this kind of positive challenge, I’ve found that it will actually be useful and valuable for my product. As part of the conversation, I’ll have learnt a good amount to craft the beginning of a user story with acceptance criteria. Also, the context and reasoning will help me rank how this new feature compares to existing ones in my backlog and how it should be prioritised.
2. You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
An odd one I know, but while we’re on the subject of questions, as a new Product Owner who’d only heard about Scrum, Agile, Sprints, Jira, Slack in theory — there were some questions that I simply didn’t know to ask!
Questions you’ll only know to ask once you’ve launched a product, once you’ve gone through a round of testing, how to build a roadmap, how to run a product demo. As with any other job, experience next to academic learning is key and will only come to you with time!
I was lucky to have join a team with an experienced Product Owner at the helm who has helped me along this journey of experience, introducing me to the right people and processes. As a result, I feel more confident after having launched my first product in my first year and from the many interactions with colleagues across the division.
3. Break Stuff
Leading on nicely from my previous point, my boss has a very useful knack for picking apart my product in a productive way. Have you thought about this? What if this happens? What are your dependencies? What’s your plan B? A hugely useful process I found, and it’s turned into a bit of a mantra for me. Break stuff in a safe environment before it goes to a wider audience.
I’m reminded a little bit of my days in Corporate Affairs where a healthy amount of cynicism helped in separating the good stories from the boring and always preparing for the worst.
Much like producing a robust Q&A document to arm people against tricky media questions, the goal is to get to a place where you have picked apart your product to such a degree that what’s left fits together perfectly, delivers a great experience and meets business objectives.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
I didn’t appreciate how much time I would spend talking to people as a Product Owner. Be it refinement sessions with my scrum team, clashing roadmaps with other product owners, discussing the nuts and bolts with architects, getting to the nub of what stakeholders actually want, customers… Chances are you should stop reading these words and talk to them immediately.
As a product owner, I am responsible for my product. I get to make decisions — but I can only make those decisions if I take everyone on a journey with me. If everyone understands what the product is about. What it’s meant to achieve. If people don’t understand why I am making a decision, they likely won’t approve it.
5. Too Many Meetings
A consequence of having so many people to talk to and working in a big organisation like Sainsbury’s means that I had too many meetings and not enough time to actually do any work.
This is a tricky one and I don’t think I’ve cracked it yet. I try to make sure that Agile ceremonies are booked as far in advance as possible and I also make sure that I have a set amount of time a day blocked to do work.
In this least year as a product owner I have spent more time sketching and drawing than in my five years in the Corporate Affairs team combined. There’s an irony to the simple fact that in order to build a digital product in an Agile way, you’re going to end up using a lot of paper.