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One of the most problematic and misunderstood aspects of Agile is the “Voice of Customer” aka “Product Owner” function, and I’m not just saying that because it’s my job right now.

I’ve been familiar with the idea of “Voice of Customer” ever since my first dealings with eXtreme Programming which emphasises keeping the customer close to the team and (like many of XP’s tenets) it sounds eminently sensible at first glance but deeper scratching reveals a world of subtlety and often false assumptions. There was always a doubt at the back of my mind that something was wrong with the idea of proxying customer satisfaction through a single internal voice.
[Edit: I may be getting confused with my reading of XP here. I’ve dug out the “manuals” and it’s all rather vague – no surprises there. In any cases proxying the customer is very widely practised across all methodologies]

Three things recently brought my unease into sharper focus:

  • I have been chatting to various interesting people (as you do), who have openly questioned the role of Product Management / Product Ownership within, in particular, a lean environment.
  • As my team settles even further into the comfort of our Scrum methodology (our core roles have been stable for over a year now — woah!), it’s allowed me to step back and look away from “productivity” — i.e. making a plan that works — and focus more on the question of whether the plan itself could be better — i.e. are we building the best thing possible?
  • I’ve been picking apart some of the specific lessons from Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, which I highly recommend if there’s anyone out there in tech who hasn’t read it yet. Its principals most definitely do not apply only to “startup companies” but equally to any company whose business is innovation.

Pro: Why Product Ownership is good

What did I say to those interesting people who wondered why Product Ownership / Management was necessary at all? Well, I made the following points:

  1. If you put half a dozen super-smart creative types in a room and ask them to build a coherent product without nominating a single person who’s responsible for that vision, they will fail. They will bicker and argue and will either fail to make decisions at all or will come up with gruesome compromises.
  2. Some super-smart creative types are, to put it bluntly, just terrible at thinking about things from a “normal” person’s point of view. This is particularly problematic if your customers happen to be “normal”. I don’t mean this as criticism at all. I’ve worked with some people whose intelligence and passion and innovation I have nothing but (almost) blinding admiration for, but sometimes the empathy required for customer satisfaction just isn’t part of their skill-set.
  3. Some criticisms of a single Product Owner are based on the idea that they are the ones making all the decisions or feeding working into a “dumb pipe” of development; but when done properly this couldn’t be further from the truth.
    My job is to facilitate shared decision making and to make sure that the strengths of the team are being appropriately harnessed to the task of building something valuable.

Con: Why Product Ownership might be harmful

They say the Pope is the “Voice of God on Earth”, but do we really mean that literally? It probably depends on what he happens to be saying (or not saying…)

I’m not comparing Product Managers to the Pope, but we should be realistic and point out that the “Voice of Customer” is necessarily flawed and, despite best efforts and years of study and experience, is never truly representative of the real thing.

The paradox of Product Ownership is that when everything is going really well, you don’t feel needed at all. These are the quiet times, when the team has a great vision in their heads and know how to achieve it. Even better when the customer is happy with what they end up building. Conversely, when goals are unclear or the customer turns around and expresses dissatisfaction, the Product Owner is bombarded with a constant stream of increasingly micro-sized questions from the team. It’s easy to become frustrated with this and wonder why people can’t just think for themselves!

Of course, you could argue that when the team is confused or reticent, then the Product Owner has simply failed to do their job properly, but it’s not really that simple. It turns out that these failures are inevitable when you try to “guess” what the customer wants. In The Lean Startup, Ries consistently points out that there is no better way to find the right thing to build than constantly shipping product and measuring the reaction to it. Sometimes, having a “Voice of Customer” role makes an organisation less inclined to interact with real customers. After all, why would you want to go through the harrowing spiritual ordeal of trying to talk to God when the Pope now has a Twitter account?

Is this what you wanted?

If you’re practising Scrum and you’ve ever had a Sprint Review meeting where the team nervously demo some new feature to the Product Owner, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The question on everyone’s mind is: “is this what you wanted?”

I’m a strong believer in using “emotional intelligence” as a guide to organisational effectiveness. When we’re doing things wrongly, we find ourselves filling up with negative emotions. Conversely when we’re brimming with optimism it’s usually a good indicator that we’re on the right track.

Nervousness about building the wrong thing is a warning indicator that something is wrong. Scrum’s short iterations attempt to mitigate the risk of building the wrong thing by limiting the total amount of time “wasted” by making the wrong decisions, but this advantage is negated if we package our iterations into a lengthy release cycle during which we don’t interact with the customer. There are other advantages to short iterations which still apply, so Agile can still bring huge benefits even when combined with long release cycles.

From Papal to Pastoral

So what is Product Ownership all about? If we can never get it right, what’s the point? Was the question I was asked valid: “Aren’t ‘Agile’ and ‘Product Management’ contradictions in terms?

My short answer — No. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

My longer answer is that the reasons I give above (i.e. the need for a facilitator, a final arbiter and an empathic voice) still stand, regardless of what kind of organisation you are running. The less Agile an organisation is, the futher — spatially and temporally — the product builders are from the customer; and the more the Product Owner needs to stand in as a substitute for the customer. Conversely, the more Agile, the more emphasis can be placed on the pastoral functions.

From “Is this what you wanted?” to “What do you think of this?”

In a sense, it’s personal choice for your organisation how Agile or Lean you are. My opinion is that you can’t take Agility too far — that the less command-and-control you can be, the better the end result. In an ideal world then, my role would be a purely pastoral one — helping people along the path to finding their own way forwards, safe in the knowledge that every step is a step forward, and that it’s never wrong to say: “I don’t know, but what do you think of this?”

Maybe then I could get some coding done too ;)