the product owner: the driver of digital transition?

The result of BrandPit’s benchmark digital salaries confirms what we also see in the market: the product owner is one of the most in-demand professionals in the digital domain. Especially since COVID, which has been the reason for faster and further digitalization for many companies. Consumers increasingly expect(ed) companies to be able to arrange everything online, so companies often have/had to catch up digitally. In order to do better than the competitors, to survive, or in order to continue to grow. This also explains the increasing demand for product owners. They often seem to be the drivers of the digital transition. But are they?

We will have a talk with Saskia van Spierenburg and Antoine Demmenie, two digital product professionals from BrandPit’s network, about the role of the product owner/manager and how this role has changed.

the role of a product owner

What exactly does a product owner do? The product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the work the (development) team delivers on the (digital) product. By the digital product we mean products that have become part of the customer’s digital journey such as websites, platforms, applications, tooling, etc. The product owner immerses himself in customers and represents their interest in development. Data helps the product owner understand how the product is used. Furthermore, the product owner studies the market, competitors and trends. In addition, the product owner masters “the business” and manages stakeholders.

Based on all collected information, the product owner develops a vision and product strategy and converts these into a prioritized list of customer needs (user stories) that the product should meet, or the product backlog. The product owner ensures that the team understands the product goal and the (value of the) items in the product backlog, manages them, and monitors and evaluates product progress. In an agile organization, the team validates new ideas, products and improvements by experimenting and soliciting feedback to make the product even better based on that feedback. In this agile approach, work is made small to create value as quickly as possible. The product owner ensures focus is maintained and knows how to make the best decisions and set priorities. This allows the product to be developed with minimal resources and brought to market as quickly as possible.

This agile approach works not only for “technical” product development, but also for other disciplines, such as marketing, which are crucial for the success of a (digital) product. There are product owners for marketing but also for very different business domains. Product management is nowadays much more interwoven throughout the organization and the product result is an increasing part of the success of an organization. It is logical that the product owner is in high demand.

Saskia: “I think we are increasingly moving towards a situation where we see that the digital product is essential for an organization. This gets an increasingly important and prominent position in an organization. That’s why it is important to a product owner/product manager to be customer-driven and data-driven while being able to inform the organization about everything that’s happening.”

The product owner is the one who sets priorities so that the team makes the right thing at the right time. This requires a clear mandate for the product owner. More and more we see the role of product owner getting a larger scope. It is becoming increasingly important for a product owner to have a clear vision of the product. What do we stand for? What do we want to achieve in the long term? What innovations can we do to help the customers even better?

the changes in recent years

Since digital transition has a priority for many companies, digital product development is very important. Business and IT must work together and the role of product owner is essential. In (too) many cases, product development is still mainly about IT building features.

Antoine: “In fact, many product owners are project managers, people who manage the process. Or just the product backlog, so the product owner is an administrator. These are companies that work agile only on paper, with top-down driven feature teams. The team, nor the product owner, has the mandate to decide what should be made or how. The team is the executor of a dictated feature roadmap, often including solutions. So the driver is output, such as storypoints and features, and not outcome: solving the problem, meeting a need, delivering value. Often these companies embrace a framework to stay ‘in control’ whereby the product owner becomes even further removed from stakeholders and the real users, because a separate role is created for this. But my experience is that companies that ’empower’ product owners and teams to solve a real customer problem in an agile way, achieve the best results.”

He continues: “There is also a bit of ‘title inflation’: many people with certifications but without hands-on product management knowledge and experience, who still call themselves product owners. But creating digital products is real professionalism.” A product owner is responsible for creating the solution to meet a need or solve a problem. How does it really benefit the customer? And will the “problem” actually be solved?

Saskia indicates: “Previously, people often trusted their gut instincts while working. With that gut instinct, a complex solution with new functionalities was conceived and created, only to find out that it didn’t quite meet the customer’s needs.” She says that working in a multidisciplinary team where digital products are jointly created ensures better results. When business and IT are brought together in a team, knowledge is shared and they include each other in their thought processes around digital improvements. This allows an engineer to contribute timely thinking and look at what is technically possible from a technical perspective. Together with (possibly) the business analyst and the engineers, user stories and features are well thought out and sharpened.

“We learn more by trying things and experimenting to make products better. It is important to work in a data-driven way and to focus on the result for the customer. After all, we cannot completely figure out in advance how a customer will react,” says Saskia.

Antoine indicates: “The product owner, together with the multidisciplinary team, is responsible for coming up with the best digital solution. While the UX designer is responsible for usability and the engineers for feasibility, the product owner must ensure that the solution is valuable for the customer and viable for the business. So the product owner is not limited to the ‘what’ but certainly has a responsibility for the ‘how’ as well.”

the skills of a product owner

The most important task of a product owner is to put the customer at the heart of everything and to inform the stakeholders and the team about the needs of the customer. This means that a product owner must have a number of qualities to be successful.

Saskia: “As a product owner you will have to work in a data-driven way, dare to experiment in order to learn what the customer really needs from the product. Otherwise you will keep getting feature requests that you (but also the user) might not be waiting for. Good communication skills are very important because many people within the organization depend on the digital innovations and many different stakeholders are involved. There is often a great importance behind digital innovation, everything should preferably be ready the next day and of course stay up-to-date. So you have to be strong in your position. More and more vision is needed; you have to be able to make trade-offs between impact and effort, listen well and try to understand.”

Antoine: “You have to have the courage to choose or to say no. After all, saying yes to one thing means saying no to another. Keeping things simple and small. Quickly achieve a small success and show that working agile really does lead to better results. This gives confidence among stakeholders and the necessary mandate to move forward. This is often the spark for a digital transition. After all, building the best digital product in the best way often requires a broader organizational change, and so the product owner is then the catalyst for this.”

This matches with what we see in the requested skills by our clients. Increasingly, we are looking for a product owner or product manager with a clear vision, a certain content in his/her background and with excellent communication skills. For example, an e-commerce product owner who has been active as an UX designer in the past or a product manager who has only worked for SaaS organizations and therefore brings a certain amount of content to the table. We notice that there is also a need for a little more differentiation. Especially since digital developments also demand different skills than before. The different levels and types of product ownership means that other names are also used: digital product manager, product lead, head of product, senior product owner. These are names we see to indicate a more strategic interpretation.

In short: the role has become increasingly broader and also more strategic. It’s making more impact on the digital transition, but there are major differences in terms of interpretation and naming. What remains is that a good product owner always thinks from the customer’s point of view, but also from business objectives and goes for digital impact. In our view, the role of the product owner is indeed an important driver of the digital transition of companies.

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