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Decision Making and the Role of the Product Owner

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I just completed my Scrum Certified Product Owner training and certification class here in Boulder. It was a really excellent class taught by scrum guru Mike Cohn.

I learned a lot about how to do the expectations for the role of product ownership, and lots of techniques and processes for how to do the job effectively. The class was very engaging with a good mix of instructor-led content and group activities.

One of the most significant aspects of being a Product Owner in scrum is making decisions and prioritizing work.

Here are some things that will make it difficult to do the job effectively:

  1. You aren't given the authority by your organization to make decisions for the product.
  2. You don't give yourself the authority to make those decisions.
  3. You have a hard time making any decisions.

Number 1 on the list is something that you can do something about, and we spent time in the class discussing it.

If you are undercut by superiors or colleagues, you need to address that with the superiors and colleagues. Often times they may not be aware of it, in which case simply brining it up is enough to make a difference.

In other situations you may need to understand the why of the situation and seek to improve your understanding of the business or your boss vision. Then when you are on the same page you will have less conflict and less decisions that have to be revisited.

If the your boss, colleagues, or team leadership fundamentally doesn't trust you or anyone to make those decisions - seek alternative employment.


But what about 2 and 3? I wrote a recent post about absence of emotion in decision making.

Similar things apply here. If you believe that you can be an effective product owner and make the necessary decisions based solely on data, abstract principles, and rational thinking, you will run into problems. You will never have enough data to make all the decisions you have to make NOW.

You can have the data in 3 months, but the world may have passed you by then.

An effective Product Owner is going to Know a Lot - they will know the domain, they will know the analytics, they will know the users (some of them personally). They will use all of these things to make decisions.

But they won't (and can't) know everything. Even if you could know everything today, you wouldn't know everything tomorrow.

And when you don't know everything, you will have to make decisions in the absence of data. In these situations, you need to know your instincts and trust your insight to guide you.

And trusting your gut means listening to and understanding emotions - and being able to defend that decision. Whether you call it trusting your gut or rapid cognition you will need some of it to be an effective product owner.


If you aren't used to working this way, then you can choose to focus on the activities that will make your insights and intuitions more informed - learn things, focus on data, know as much as you possibly can.

Then when you need to make a judgement call, you will have a solid foundation that you have built upon to get there.

But when the time comes, you will need to decide in the absence of data, and you may have to argue your point, so be ready to put some feeling into the discussion and push for what you think is the right answer.


When you find yourself in such a situation, the best and easiest way to handle this is to recognize that this is the situation are in: You don't have enough data, you will need to make a recommendation and push for what you think is right.

I find that simply acknowledging the situation as such - whether externally, internally, or both - is very helpful.

It is also helpful to remember in these situations that most bosses want someone who will make a strong recommendation and push for what they think is the right answer.

They will see you as providing decisive leadership and be able to back you up in your recommendation, without needing to get deeply involved in the data, details, or weeds. You are smart and well-informed, it's your decision to make as the product owner.

If you run into headwinds here then the same recommendation applies as above: seek to understand those headwinds, adjust if necessary, continue making recommendations based on the best data available.


You may be wrong.

We're all wrong sometimes.

Being wrong is an opportunity for further introspection and learning. Accept it as such, make further adjustments and move on.