Take 3 minutes to think of 1 to 3 very specific activities that can have a tremendous positive impact on your business if you would focus on it right now. Write them down.
Our role as Product owner is to create value fast. We need to make sure that the team focusses on delivering valuable stories that contribute to the product goal. And for the team to be most effective, we need to avoid disturbing the team with new requirements during a sprint.
So when it is even hard for yourself to focus, how do you say 'No' to an ambitious Sales Manager with an excellent idea which will disrupt your team? Or to a Kingpin who needs a small thing done now?
Stephen Covey used a matrix for that decades ago: Urgent vs Important (source: The four-quadrant "Eisenhower Decision Matrix" for importance vs. urgency.).
So what is the difference between Urgent and Important? "Urgent" means now. "Important" are those activities that bring the most value to your business. The challenge is in the segment ‘Important, but not Urgent’. How do you make sure you do THOSE activities. While we know how important they are, what stops us from doing them? We know, that if we don’t do them now, they will become urgent at a later stage. And at that moment - when it has become urgent - it does not really lead to the highest quality. Therefore, the challenge is to say "no" to the disturbers, so that we and our teams can focus on .
A good Product Owner has the mind set to help others to become successful. With that mindset the standard reply to a request is 'Yes'. But if you continue to embrace new requests, you also let a previous commitment down. You can avoid too many 'yes' if you ask yourself numerous times: Why do I do it now? That question has 3 crucial elements to help prioritize:
- What is the value to the company and its customers? How much time will we save? How much happier will our customers be? How much more will we sell after we delivered this feature?
- I (we):
Is it my (my team’s) responsibility? Or do they just come to you because you have a track record of delivering? Does it contribute to our product objectives, our roadmap and our (internal) customers strategy? Or should I delegate?
What is the priority? Will the problem get bigger if we deliver later? Will we miss sales? Will the problems pile up?
If your questions are of good quality, the 'Why' questions will lead to an excellent value statement. The 'Now' questions will lead you to a good priority statement.
So a good Product Owner also says 'No' a lot. But how do you decline a request without being perceived as a resistant bureaucrat from the past. Your "No'" will only be accepted by your counterpart, if you provide alternatives:
- No, not now. The value is clear, and we will put it on the backlog to be discussed for a next Program Increment
- No, not us. But there is this team that can support your request. If applicable of course.
- No, not this way. Not everything is solved by a system change. In many cases, problems can be solved by optimizing broken business processes. Or the problems would not occur if people start following well defined business process.
A courageous Product Owner pushes back 'urgent' if not important, so that we can focus on what matters most: the 1 to 3 points that you noted down before. For most of us POs these points will be in the area to prepare the right stories, features and maybe epics that will deliver the highest business value in future sprints and increments.