Hey, Product Owners: Your Title Sucks
In this weekly series, I opine on how language and content affect the way we understand the products and services around us. I do this for your entertainment and education (and, of course, to remind you that if you’re looking for a freelance copy, content, product, or technical writer… yada yada, hire me).
With present day political drama congesting airwaves and internet pipes alike, it’s hard to imagine anything could be as divisive as politics.
Yet, if you read a lot about business, you’ll find equivalent amounts of contradiction and polarity.
One great example therein? Titles. Googling “are titles important?” will reveal a raging war between business thinkers. There as just as many who purport titles are meaningless as there are those who assert the opposite.
I’m in the latter camp. I believe that, like an elevator pitch for your job, your title should provide clarity around your purpose and the value you offer back to the business.
And that’s precisely why I hate the title “Product Owner”.
Wait, What Are We Talking About?
Taken literally, the title “Product Owner” conjures up images of a singular, heroic employee who “owns” the product.
With no context, you are likely to imagine someone, perhaps a starch-shirted business executive, who is ultimately responsible for the product; someone who makes the key decisions and is held accountable for their outcomes; someone who calls the shots, runs the show, takes no shit; a titan of industry and business; a Steve Jobs; a Bill Gates; an Elon Musk — the true and just and rightful owners of product and legend alike.
*Cue Superman theme song as a brilliant, golden podium rises from beneath keynote stage, smoke machines puttering perfect, pillowy clouds upon which the rising star Product Owner rises into visibility — and glory.*
But while you will rarely meet someone who actually has the title “Product Owner”, at least a few Product Managers would describe themselves in similar terms – if not go so far as to proclaim themselves (the beloathed) “CEO of the product”.
The “Product Owner” title is, as a result of its simplicity, a cautionary tale of the profound harm that titles can do when taken too literally.
You see, the word “product” is particularly loaded these days, and in the real world, it is all-too-easy to fall into the “Steve Jobs” clone complex.
This complex begets a misguided obsession with all the wrong things: with the UI, the UX, the implementation, the documentation, the sprints and rituals and demos and executive presentations – the myopic “what” and “how” and “when”.
These intoxicated Product Owners fail to develop that which is far less enchanting but far more important: a clear understanding and articulation of the customer problem that warrants a product solution.
In other words, they don’t own the “why”.
In fussing too much about features and functions and interface Feng Shui, these “Owners” ship products that don’t solve actual problems.
Even larger organizations can fall prey to the curse of the “Product Owner”. These organizations fail to distribute product accountability evenly amongst the developers and agile coaches and product marketers working in tandem.
This lack of accountability fosters Product Owners who are actively prevented from focusing on the outside world and the “why” as they must instead turn inward to manage the build and the “what”.
And to think: all this from a simple, two-word title.
I believe words are powerful. That’s why I’ve taken increasing umbrage with the title “Product Owner” as I’ve matured in my product management career and better understood the value of the role.
There is no question that most businesses need someone to manage the build-out of a product. Like any other complex project, without a dedicated organizer, you’re likely to lose quality, money, or time if not all three.
But the true value of a Product Owner is his or her ability to understand and communicate the customer’s problems clearly, not to build the solution.
Great “POs” must educate the teams they work with on the customer problem, excite those teams to solve that problem, and help the rest of the company empathize with that problem.
In truth, we are “Problem Owners”: we own the customer problem, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that problem gets solved, however necessary—be it through product features or written documentation or even just a simple phone call.
The title “Product Owner” sucks.
Rather than getting caught up in your visions of grandeur as the sole champion upon which the product’s entire fortune and future rests as, instead focus your efforts on the key activity that actually matters and the one for which the role should be named instead.
Be your customer’s “Problem Owner”.
Understand the customer’s pains, empathize with your customer’s problems, and own getting those problems solved with whatever means most effective, product or otherwise.
What about you? Agree? Disagree? Respond away. And if you’d like to learn more about me or my business, visit www.frankcaron.com.