How a digital product owner primes digital products for success

By Nicholas Weber

The digital product owner plays an essential role in priming your digital products and initiatives for success. Here's why – and how to establish effective product ownership at your organisation.

What is a digital product owner?

The digital product owner is a role within product delivery and the SCRUM framework. The role is focused on value and is responsible for gathering feedback, making decisions, and ensuring that the voice of the customer is heard and acted on throughout digital product design and delivery.

As the bridge between strategy makers, stakeholders, and delivery teams, a product owner is responsible for making sure that digital products meet diverse customer needs and clearly defined strategic goals.

The value of digital product ownership

There's a lot at stake when digital products and initiatives fail to meet customer needs and clearly defined strategic outcomes:

  • Wasted digital investments and misplaced resources
  • Poor customer experiences and a disconnected brand experience
  • Missed opportunities to drive revenue and sustainable business growth 
  • Difficult to gain or maintain competitive advantage

Product ownership plays an important role in navigating this minefield. The digital product owner collaborates closely with stakeholders, customers, and product teams to ensure that digital products deliver early and lasting value to you and your customers.

This is crucial in helping organisations shift their mindset and processes away from one-off projects towards programmes of continuous improvement and transformation that drive sustainable business growth and meet changing customer needs.

Product owners use feedback and data to ensure that digital products deliver early and sustainable value.

They can also be the driving force behind small digital experiments that show the worth of digital investment to senior leadership teams that are slow to allocate resource. They can test the smallest element possible and ensure that product development is based on evidence, rather than assumptions.

What does good product ownership look like?

The digital product owner needs to be robust, resilient, and happy to make important decisions, often with imperfect information.

Their roles include:

  • Resource management. Understanding which resources need to be lined up and primed ahead of their involvement in the project. Ultimately, they’re responsible for ensuring a project delivers value in line with the timeline and budget.
  • Stakeholder alignment. Ensuring all relevant stakeholders are briefed on their role in the project, that they know how they can make a positive difference to the project, and that they have all the information they need to make that contribution. The product owner needs to align themselves with the project team and other stakeholders affected by the project, ensuring that their concerns are listened to and addressed.
  • Delivery team management. Once a project is in delivery, the product owner is actively engaged with the digital delivery team, which may include an external digital agency. They are involved in daily stand-up meetings with the product manager, developers, and business analysts, along with example workshops as they work to set and agree the user acceptance criteria for each user story identified. 
  • Timely decision-making. The product owner is responsible for ensuring the right decisions are made in a timely fashion. They’re involved in determining and prioritising stories in future sprints, planning around the available budget, and making key decisions that direct the work of the delivery team.  

Product ownership challenges

There are clear benefits to effective product ownership, including a positive impact on revenue. But many organisations still operate without a recognised or properly assigned digital product owner.

When we polled digital managers to see why this might be the case, they cited things like:

  • Our team structure 'doesn't lend itself to the role'
  • Not enough knowledge on the business case for product ownership
  • Confusion between product ownership and management.

This suggests that many organisations don’t understand the role of the product owner – or the relationship and differences between product managers and owners (product manager is a job, whereas product owner is a role you play on a Scrum team).

In my experience, product management fails when organisations do not empower the product owner to lead the decision-making, or where the product owner is micro-managed by others within their organisation.

Another key challenge is where the product owner is unable to devote sufficient time to deliver the role effectively due to other roles and responsibilities.

Several of the digital managers we spoke with said that product ownership at their organisation had room for improvement, and that they intended to review the relationship between product ownership and product success.

Without effective product ownership, the risk of ‘scope creep’, un-prioritised work, poorly defined requirements, and running over-budget increases dramatically – and there's a negative impact on value delivery.

How to establish effective product ownership

Product ownership is far more effective where an organisation has appointed a dedicated product owner who understands the value of investing time in aligning strategy makers and digital teams.

Many organisations will need to build a business case for this role and will need to look at how internal structures and governance supports product ownership.

But the value of product ownership also hinges on the capabilities of the product owner.

I've seen many Agile efforts fail because of poor communication and decision making skills in the person selected for the product owner role. Or a lack of mandate or seniority within the business in general. In these cases, the product owner simply becomes a go-between. Or, at worst, a bottleneck with no real power to improve the speed of iteration.

Andy Skipper, founder and consultant CTO, Saccade

Even with the right individual in place, a business will need to fully support its product owner, understand their pressures, provide guidance, and take measures to harness their important role within product delivery. 

Final thoughts

Supported by the right processes, practices, and methodologies, product owners are invaluable in helping a business to transform digitally and deliver successful digital products.

By managing different stakeholders and their expectations – and helping to establish a digital culture focused on data-led continuous improvement – the product owner is key to ensuring products continue to address real and changing customer needs.

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