How writing made me a better Product Owner

Product Management Jul 18, 2021

Learn how to spread ideas that are easy to digest

As a Product Owner, I don’t build products.

Read that sentence again. It probably sounds wrong, but on reflection, I hope you’ll realize it is a simple and inevitable truth of the job.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

Like an orchestra conductor who doesn’t produce any sound during a performance, I don’t build the product that is supposed to deliver value.

The Scrum Team works on our product, I’m there to support every step of the way to ensure we make the lives of our customers better and are able to capture that value for the business.

An essential part of the Product Owner's role is to figure out the right thing to build. You’re responsible for ensuring this happens, but it doesn’t mean you have to do it on your own.

But imagine you already know the right thing to do. I realize this is a luxurious position to be in. Now picture you’re not able to effectively communicate the vision of what we should be doing and why.

Who cares you know the right thing to do, if nobody wants to follow you to reach that destination?

If you suck at inspiring others to follow your ideas, you will crash and burn as a Product Owner.

A large part of what you do as a Product Owner revolves around talking and communicating. What matters most isn’t what you say, but how your words are received.

Listening is mentally taxing and costs a lot of energy. Try to imagine a Product Owner who just can’t shut up and is unable to cut to the chase. As a listener, this is extremely frustrating, isn’t it?

I’ve written more than 130 articles on Medium. When you spend a lot of time writing, you will become easier and more interesting to listen to. Expressing your thoughts regularly helps you to be a better communicator. Writing forces you to get to the core of what you’re trying to say and tell it in a captivating way.

Here are 3 important lessons from writing which helped me become a better Product Owner.

1. Don’t write to impress — write like you speak

At school and university, I quickly learned how using an important-sounding vocabulary would get high grades. But in the real world, using complicated words hinders the ease with which your ideas are digested.

Are you not yet convinced? Let me give you an example. The book Freakonomics describes how stocks with names that are easier to pronounce (and remember) fare better in the stock market. That’s how important it is to keep things simple and fluent, everything else being equal.

Every sentence serves as a vehicle for the point you’re trying to make. Fluff is noise that detracts from the signal in your message. Too little signal and the point will be missed. Too little credibility and the strength of the signal becomes unimportant.

My writing is a vehicle for conveying ideas to others. I don’t write to impress you with sophisticated vocabulary. If I do my job well, what I write should be easy to follow by letting the underlying ideas shine through.

I apply the same reasoning whenever I’m speaking. What’s the simplest way to explain what I’m trying to say? How can I do it with fewer and simpler words? Speaking this way means less processing power hijacked from the listener and allows the ideas to take center stage.

Using simple words may not sound intellectual, but who cares? I’d much rather have you feel smart by learning something new than be impressed by my extensive vocabulary.

2. Product Management is difficult to understand — make it easy to grasp for others

What comes naturally to most companies is focusing on timelines and delivering features. The underlying thinking is that delivering a feature is equal to delivering value. This thinking is as misguided as the belief that telling a joke guarantees people will laugh. Or that more lines of code leads to a better codebase.

Product Management is still in its infancy. While its practices provide a better path than the Feature Factory, many people are unaware of what it entails. It’s your job as a Product Owner to help explain to people at different levels in the org chart that delivering features isn’t enough. Most miss the importance of gaining confidence a feature will be valuable before we actually start building it.

To convince those around you there is a different and better way, you need to be able to hold their hand and show them the way. You need to be able to explain foreign and complicated concepts in a simple manner.

Because I regularly write about Product Management, Product Ownership, Scrum, and Agile, it becomes easy and natural to explain these concepts to others. What I write down, polish, and refine becomes a part of me that I can often easily recall.

When I talk about any of these concepts I’ve written about, I can instantly remember a good way of explaining them. Writing requires a certain immersion, which ensures those ideas will become deeply ingrained in your mind and readily available to explain to others.

3. Writing makes you realize that readers have better things to do than listen to you

When you write, every sentence is an opportunity to lose your reader. By keeping sentences short and concise, you’ll decrease the amount of readers you’ll lose along the way. But let there be no mistake, you will always lose readers along the way.

When you speak, you need to strike that right balance as well. Sometimes you need to tell a story and set the stage before you explain important concepts. Sometimes you can immediately get down to business, and explain what matters.

By writing, you get a feeling for what resonates with people, and what doesn’t. Claps, reads, shares, likes, messages on LinkedIn, are all a form of feedback. If people don’t read or care about what you’ve written, you can safely assume you could have done a better job.

The difficult part is figuring out what you should improve. The numbers just tell you people don’t care about your article, but the why behind it is absent. You need to figure that one out on your own.

Becoming a better writer will help you become a better Product Owner

As a Product Owner, often nobody who you’re working with in the delivery of value reports to you. The only way you can get people moving in the direction of the Product Vision, is by influencing them without authority. You need to have the right ideas, but you also need to help plant the seeds for these novel concepts in others. All of this boils down to how good you are at communicating.

What I haven’t touched upon yet is that by writing frequently, you become a better writer. A large part of your job involves expressing yourself through text, like e-mails, User Stories, Product Requirement Documents (PRDs), or sending an e-mail to explain that new feature to people in the company.

Great communication is key to success as a Product Owner, and writing is an excellent way to improve your ability to communicate and explain complicated concepts in a simple way.

In the words of Jonathan Swift:

“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”

When you can’t communicate, your vision will not spread to others — it will be concealed, invisible, and remain stuck in your mind.

Great communication exposes novel ideas in a way that people are able to repeat to others. This is what makes your vision stick, spread, and makes it possible for all your teams to act in the same spirit.

Less but better is the way. Anything else means noise will bury your ideas.