Conversation is King, Product Owners Ignore This at Their Peril

This is the first article in a series on how the best Product Owners manage to get on top of their refinement process. The insights come from interviews and close collaboration with ~150 product owners from across the tech industry.

In Scrum, the PO’s responsibility is to manage the product backlog – to handle both prioritization and refinement of the items therein.

We believe the Three C’s framework by Ron Jeffries is a great way to describe the role of the PO:

  • Make sure the team works on the right things, typically expressed as stories, each written on a Card
  • Make sure the team and relevant stakeholders share enough understanding and agreement on what these stories mean, by facilitating a Conversation
  • Make sure this conversation is translated into concrete acceptance criteria and/or reference designs so that it is easy later to get Confirmation whether the story is done

The ideal scenario would be for the PO to get team and stakeholders in the same room, write the Card, have the Conversation and coming up with the Confirmation. However, in reality the Conversation happens in several iterations with different constellations of stakeholders and team.

And so most POs handle this by moving emphasis from Conversation to Confirmation. They add user stories to Jira (Card). Then they write acceptance criteria and attach reference designs to these (Confirmation). Often this works quite well.

Except it turns out that sometimes it is really hard to make sure everybody is on the same page, and so they become the bottleneck by virtue of being the only ones who were present when all conversations took place and so end up spending a lot of time handling additional meetings and back-and-forth communication.

Leading up to the interviews we let POs fill in a survey on how they work. One part of that survey focused on handling the Conversation and asked how often they experienced different types of problems.

It was clear to us, both from the survey, and from following interviews and collaboration, that these and adjacent problems cause a lot of lost time but also other issues relating to output quality and team happiness.

As we had further discussions with the survey respondents, we saw a pattern among the POs that expressed the least amount of these problems. They placed great emphasis on facilitating the Conversation. Specifically, we saw that they engaged in three practices:

  • They made an effort to keep a structured representation of the current state of the Conversation
  • They were diligent about asking stakeholders and team for specific input to the Conversation, and about following up on that input
  • They did not stop the Conversation when development began, but assumed new input would come up and so ensured continuity

By engaging in these practices, these POs managed to overcome the problems that other experiences. In the following articles, we will elaborate on these three practices. Next article in the series explains why product owners should write explicit questions to structure the conversations around new features.

Delibr is an outlining tool for product owners that helps them handle the conversation around new features.

It aims to help POs facilitate the conversation by enabling structure, follow-up, and continuity