How do Product Owners deliver value without actually building anything?

Product Owner Feb 3, 2020
“The great secret is that an orchestra can actually play without a conductor at all“— Joshua Bell

The job of a Product Owner is difficult to explain, to put it mildly. When I am at a social happening and someone asks what I do for a living, I usually answer that I help build valuable products.

When they ask more questions and conclude I don’t build anything myself, often a mixed look of confusion and disappointment appears on their face. This gets followed up by a question along these lines: “How can you help deliver valuable products if you don’t actually build anything?”.

Ouch. Fair question, even if it hurts a bit.

Just like an orchestra can make music without a conductor, a Scrum Team can build a product without a Product Owner. So why do Scrum Teams have a Product Owner? Do they actually need one?

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Before we get into answering that, let’s talk about the history of music conducting. Covering a brief history of conducting is useful because there are many parallels between the job of a Product Owner and the conductor of an orchestra.

Making music without a dedicated conductor

Before 1820, most orchestras did not have a dedicated conductor. Conducting was a side gig bestowed on one of the instrumentalists who was part of the ensemble. Their main job was to play the instrument, leading the ensemble was secondary.

Dedicated conductors started to become more mainstream as the orchestra grew — the larger the orchestra, the longer it takes for sound to travel from the back to the front of the orchestra. This delay may result in two instruments, say violins and drums, crashing together and bringing a potentially lovely piece of music to a grinding halt. Hence a dedicated conductor that kept everyone synchronized became necessary as the orchestra grew.

Over the centuries the role of the conductor has evolved to be more than just keeping the orchestra in sync. A conductor doesn’t make any music but helps the orchestra produce beautiful music.

A conductor may engage in the following activities for the orchestra to help deliver a unified and magnificent listening experience to the audience:

  • Curate and select a list of works to be performed by the orchestra.
  • Study and interpret the works to be performed and relay their vision to the orchestra. This may lead to adjustments in tempo, articulation, phrasing, and repetitions of sections.
  • Leading rehearsals to communicate artistic direction and polish performance of the orchestra.
  • Using non-verbal communication to unify and shape a live musical performance that serves the artistic interpretation of the piece.

A conductor serves the music, the orchestra, and the composer. It is his job to help bring out the best music in a live performance for the audience to enjoy.

“Being a director or a conductor is a balance of many things. And to do it right is a very difficult tightrope to walk.” — Joshua Bell

So how do Product Owners help build valuable products?

“ The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful.” — Benjamin Zander
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A Product Owner doesn’t build any feature, but depends on his/her ability to help others deliver more value. A Product Owner is a servant leader of the product and the team. All the people the Product Owner works with usually don’t report to them. A Product Owner is hugely dependent on his/her ability to listen, influence and communicate with others in all layers of the organisation to be successful.

So how does a Product Owner help deliver more value?

  1. Apply focus. The amount of ideas, requests, and bugs that can be worked on any product at any given time always exceeds the capacity of the development team. The Product Owner must apply the appropriate focus, so we work on the right things and don’t dilute the value of our product. In practice, this means saying no a lot, and doing this in a way that keeps people happy. If you explain why you are saying no and it makes sense to the person asking, then over time you will have to say no less frequently.
  2. Set priorities. Even when you say ‘Yes’ to a feature this does not mean you can start working on it right away. Product Owners must devise a precise order in which features should be developed to maximize the value the product delivers to customers and the business.
  3. Inspire and motivate teams. Great products are never built by a single person. Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are visionaries who succeeded because they were able to inspire and elevate others to do great things together.
  4. Get everyone to worry about building the right thing. If you think estimating how long it takes to build a feature is hard, think again. Figuring out whether something makes sense to build is even harder. It requires diligent experimentation and research, which often gets skipped in favor of talking about features or specifying in detail how they should work. People are overconfident in their ability to determine what is valuable for their customers by using nothing but their own imagination.
  5. Keeping stakeholders happy and informed. Unhappy stakeholders can be infinitely distracting and derail all efforts to deliver value. Happy stakeholders will support you and help deliver more value.

But the most important thing a Product Owner can do is to make delivering a valuable product a team effort.

Just like an orchestra can’t deliver a beautiful performance without the concerted effort of musicians, a great product never gets built without different individuals and teams closely working together.

A Product Owner is there to support and help the team in delivering value to customers and the business. It is vital they do not obstruct the teamwork necessary to deliver valuable products.

In the words of Joshua Bell:

“Good conductors know when to let an orchestra lead itself. Ninety percent of what a conductor does comes in the rehearsal — the vision, the structure, the architecture.” — Joshua Bell

When you use Scrum, it is the job of the Scrum Team to deliver products of the highest possible value.

The Product Owner is a servant leader who is there to help pave the way for the Scrum Team. A Product Owner guides and supports the team to figure out how to deliver a valuable product, not to dictate and command every step of the way.