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Agile Software Development Agile Leadership

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.

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Leadership Mindfulness

Managing Change - When Adaptability Becomes Liability

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I've written in the past about the emotional rollercoaster and how you should think about it for the purposes of productivity and team building.

I got this basic picture from Dr. Alan Watkins in his book Coherence. It is based on the emotional range that we experience during any change, based originally on the stages of grief. For the record, the negative emotions laid out by Dr. Watkins are:

Denial (at the top left)
Resistance
Anxiety
Frustration
Despair (at the bottom)

Yikes. Yes, those are the negative emotions we experience during change.

My original article is here.

Another way that this impacts organizations is that leaders often become extremely adept at handling these emotions in themselves, and this presents two risks:


The first risk is that the leader can be in a very different place on this roller coaster than where there fellow employees are. Leaders often get advance notice and have more time to process. They also may have more experience dealing with change all across their organization.

Employees with less flux in their day-to-day duties may not be used to riding this roller coaster, and so the leader struggles not only to understand why someone isn't already on the right hand side, going up, they miss that the struggle is there at all.

The key tool to avoiding this pitfall is awareness. Are there big changes going on? Expect that everyone is somewhere on this continuum. Talk about it. Ask questions, don't accept "I'm fine" as an answer. People may be coping, people may be struggling, people may actually be fine.

But as a leader you need to know for sure and it may be that someone who is really on the right hand side has some insights that could benefit you or someone else. For this reason alone, don't accept "fine", even if they're fine.


The second challenge is that leaders can believe that they are so good at this that it doesn't apply to them. They may believe that they don't feel the negative emotions or that they know how to speed through the emotions on the left quickly. They probably can do this for small or medium sized changes.

Leaders often thrive on change - this is certainly the mold that our culture has laid out for us.

But what happens when the change is large, unexpected, or drastic? What happens if you aren't used to processing the negative, left-side emotions? What happens if you've become so accepting of the leadership norms of change that the negative emotions are unfamiliar territory.

Today's norms say you can't be afraid, desperate, or angry about change. You can't be anxious, frustrated, or in denial. You certainly can't feel despair. You need to understand and move to acceptance quickly. How else will we lead others effectively?

But things happen. Some times a change seems personal. Some times a change is personal. Sometimes a change originates in the personal sphere and comes crashing into the professional. Sometimes we end up on the left half of this roller coaster, going down, and we don't have the ability to simply fast forward through it.

When this happens we need to accept in ourselves that there is a probably a reason and look for it. It may be that a trusted friend can help, it may be something that you do on your own.

If you are stuck (just as employees, peers, and bosses often get stuck) this is not wrong. This is something that can help you go higher and achieve more when you understand it, work through it, and get yourself on the right hand side, going up.

What's most important is to not let your normal adaptability and capability force you into believing you're somewhere you're not. Leaders ignore their own emotions on the left-hand side at their own peril. You're likely to come off inauthentic and fail to help others on their own journeys if you automatically skip ahead to the right.

This lack of self-awareness can lead to lashing out or feeling disconnected. If you are angry or disconnected people will assume even more negative things about the change. At best this means they will think you are an inauthentic jerk. At worst this means that they'll think you're hiding something, which, in a way, you are.

They will make their own guesses about what you're hiding. Usually what they assume or gossip about will be worse than your own struggles with a big change.

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Leadership Machine Learning AI

Free AI/ML Education from Amazon Focused on Business Decision Makers

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Amazon has recently opened up some of its internal AI education resources for anyone who wants to use them.  They're freely available on its learning platform, which you can use if you have an Amazon account.  

I'm currently working through the Machine Learning for Business Challenges course, which has some great content.  It's available here:

ML for Business Challenges

It's great if you ever wanted education on:

  1. The basics of ML explained in a non-technical way with lots of useful examples
  2. What kinds of problems are good for ML and which aren't
  3. What kinds of questions to ask to make sure your team is thinking about an ML problem the right way
  4. How to define the scope of a ML solution

The lessons are succinct and digestible, with lots of demystification and straightforward examples that show you how machine learning can benefit you, and when it probably isn't the right solution.

Here is a link to all the business decision maker classes:

Machine Learning: Business Decision Maker

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Leadership Mindfulness

The Imagination Directed to the Relief of Human Suffering

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The placebo effect isn't something I think about very often and when I do it is usually in the context of dismissing it as a trick of the mind or something like that. Maybe the placebo effect is just someone getting better on their own where it would have happened anyway, with no medical intervention at all.

I suspect a lot of us think this way.

But there are people out there wondering why it's happening. Why does the body sometimes heal itself? Can we understand it? What mechanisms are at work? If it is a trick of the mind, why does it seem to happen so consistently?

Here is an article about these individuals:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/magazine/placebo-effect-medicine.html

For a long time, nearly 250 years, we've known about the placebo effect, but we have done very little to study it.

That is changing now.

Experiments are focused on understanding how the placebo effect works, in the hopes of understanding it and putting it to work for the betterment of man kind.

It's a fasciating article and you should read the whole thing.

There are two parts of this article that interesting as leadership examples, and I want to take a few minutes to talk about those.


The origin of our understanding of the Pacebo effect come from 18th century France and involves a famous American.

Benjamin Franklin was part of a panel that was tasked with analyzing the work of the mesermist Charles d’Eslon. Mesmerists (disciples of Anton Mesmer) claimed to heal people of chronic illnesses and pain using a force called Animal Magnetism.

The panel developed experiments where the patients cannot see d'Eslon, thereby separating the effects of the mesmerist from what the patient might be supplying themselves. In doing so, the panel creates the first blind medical experiments and isolated the placebo effect.

The results of the experiment were quite clear: something besides animal magnetism, something the patient's themselves are supplying, is producing the effects of the treatment.

Having been told that imagination produces the effects attributed to his work as a mesmerist, d'Eslon responds:

the imagination thus directed to the relief of suffering humanity would be a most valuable means in the hands of the medical profession.

I find d'Eslon's reaction remarkable as an example of leadership.

I have seen people go to great lengths defending things not very integral to their livelihood and profession. How many times have you seen people defend turf for the sake of defending turf and maintaining the status quo?

D'Eslon, whose career is on the line, responds very differently.

Imagine being told you're a fraud and instead of reacting with hostility, you analyze the data and retrieve the key insight. Instead of defensiveness, instead of anger you simnply extract that conclusion your detractors seemed to have overlooked.

I've seen some people who are cool under pressure, but I've never seen anything like that. It should probably go in the record books under, Most Reasonable, Self-Aware Reaction Too Bad News, Ever.

I'm not sure what happened to d'Eslon after that. But I'd curious to know what such a man did with the rest of his life.

Imagine seeing your work discredited in public and responding with a valuable insight.

He saw the value in the placebo effect and applying our imaginations to relieve suffering.


The second thing that I think we should think about as leaders:

Some pretty brave people applying imagination to something that had been dismissed by medical science for nearly 250 years. As the article mentions, this isn't an easy journey for them. To take a topic that has been dismissed for that long and try to get people to pay attention to it is a pretty amazing feat. There are a lot of detractors, but they think it is important so they are dong it anyway.

We should take a lesson from the strength of people when confronted with challenge - Do we persevere when people question us? Or do we press on?

Those studying the placebo effect are pressing on because they believe there is something valuable and interesting, that medical science can finally come to grips with.

I'm glad that now there are those in the medical profession paying attention to how the placebo effect might be used differently and I'm glad we have the tools so that we can begin to understand it. New tools (DNA sequencing and MRIs are mentioned specifically) give these researchers the ability to peer inside us and look deeper than we ever could before.

But while the technical frontier that has opened, the frontier of human complacency, tradition, and established opinion must still be confronted and there is no new tool for that. There is only courage and perseverance, just as there always has been.


These are both great examples of human beings facing the challenge of change - one story of someone faced with a challenge/change and reacting with equanimity and grace, and one story of those taking on the establishment because of what they believe is the right thing to do.

Both of these are worth thinking about as examples of how to face challenges and show leadership during times of change.

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Leadership Mindfulness

Emotions are at the Core of Firing People, Even at Netflix

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I've been fired from a company I worked for. I've written about it in the past here.

I've also fired a lot of people over the years.

I don't enjoy it. It's not fun. And it's probably going to be one of the worst days of somebody's life. That's how you should treat it. Try to be as humane as you can be.

But I don't have any problem with it - it's a necessary and valuable part of how business gets done. But if you think that you can do it without emotion I think you're missing something valuable.

I came across this article today about Netflix and their CEO, which is what brought all this up:

https://www.businessinsider.com/netflix-ceo-reed-hastings-used-keeper-test-to-fire-product-chief-2018-10

Having a "keeper test" seems like a reasonable thing to do. I wouldn't do it the way that Netflix does, but that's their business. They're a successful company. How they keep their top performers, get rid of people who don't work, and put out an amazing product is their business. More power to them.

My problem with the article is that they say they do this without emotion. If you think you're making decisions without emotion you're not just wrong, you're deluding yourself about how decision making even works. You have to have emotions to make decisions, it's part of it.

If you go out and Google that topic you'll find lots of people saying that you should avoid emotions in decision making. And if you read the articles, they're right - you should avoid making decisions when you're really angry about something and when you're feeling euphoric - those aren't good states to make decisions in. But that's different than saying there's no emotion involved in decisions or you're completely analytical, that just doesn't work.

The trick is to look at data, be analytical, but be realistic about what you're feeling and why.

Often, business leaders have to make decisions with incomplete data.

If you're totally without emotions or gut feel, what are you going to do if you have to make decisions in absence of data?

The best book on this subject is Dr. Alan Watkins' book Coherence - specifically Chapter 3 in the section "Why Emotions are Important in Business".

When Netflix execs say they're firing people without emotion I suspect they really mean they are making these decisions, "without sentimental attachment to things that happened in the past and regardless of what my relationship may be to the person who I'm thinking of firing." That's a mouthful, but it is a lot more meaningful.

So, if I believe that is what they're really saying, why does it matter what was said?

It matters for 2 reasons:

  1. What they said shows a misunderstanding of emotion and it's role in decision making. If you say things like that you are wearing blinders about what emotions you're feeling.
  2. Saying that you make these decisions without emotion feeds the notion that decision makers are robots. I think that is dangerous for company culture and human beings.

If this is true, then they are using some emotions at Netflix to make these choices. What emotions are they (or should they be) using?

They're using emotions that derive from their commitment to the business and its vision. They're trying to build the greatest entertainment company in the world, they really care about that, and they're willing to get rid of people who don't quite live up to that ideal.

Those are probably pretty strong emotions. Strong enough, even, for you to fire an employee who was once successful and now is struggling.

But you definitely aren't making such decisions without emotions.

The question I would ask, but to which I do not know the answer is, "Is one of those emotions fear?" It's hinted at in the article.

I doubt the CEO is doing these things out of fear, though you never know. The rest of the organization could easily be affected by fear of "looking soft" as the article says or by fear of losing their jobs.

If fear is a big part of the emotional cocktail, that is not healthy in the long run.

Whatever the formula is, it seems to have worked thus far.

As it relates to my second point, there is a sense that the ideal CEO is someone who is able to make these decisions like a computer or robot. Does that match someone's ideal? I've worked with a lot of executives and I can't remember one who wanted to be a robot.

Visionaries, yes. Great leaders, yes. Builders of great companies, yes.

Even some who saw firing as a key component of building workplace culture - by which I mean they would never keep people around who didn't work hard and contribute at a high level. But this was not because they were cruel, and not even because they were ruthless in pursuit of efficiency.

No, it was because they responded so significantly to those who gathered around them and shared their vision. The leaders understood the emotional toll it took on those hard working, results-driving people to have to prop-up someone who couldn't cut it.

Non-contributing and failing team members can drain the life out of a team quickly. Suddenly hard fought gains are lost and the team is struggling.

This is to say, emotions were at the very core of why those business leaders chose to remove some team members.

So, I understand the sound byte. I wouldn't have said it that way and it is not what he meant, but I think a lot of people will read that article and see the CEO of Netflix acting "without emotion" and take that to heart.

It's wrong and misguided. I hope that at least some people stop and think about that.

What's a better approach? This is off the cuff, but I'll throw out some ideas about how to deal with emotion in a firing decision process:

  1. What emotions are impacting this decision I'm about to make? Be clear with yourself - emotions are impacting you, which ones are they?
  2. How does this person's performance impact those around them?
  3. Is this person a fountain (someone who brings energy to those around them) or a drain (someone who sucks energy away from teams)?
  4. Are these challenges temporary (life-change driven or tied to a new position) or permanent (a person is constitutionally unfit for a job or role)?

On this last point, it is important to note that people rarely change. And even if you think someone can change, can they change in time to make a difference? The odds are against them changing. Do you want to base your business plan around the need for a person to fundamentally alter their behavior?

It's difficult to change, though I have seen it happen.

But if you've put a person into the position in which they're struggling you owe it to them to at least ask the question.

All of these things relate to emotions. Emotions are important and we can't make decisions without them.

Even as an executive you need to be human. You can't help it anyway.

Acknowledge what you're feeling and why. The most successful executives I've worked with all understood exactly what's impacting them and they have been good at communicating it to others.

They don't let it blind them. They manage it and use it to their advantage.

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Leadership Agile Software Development

Software Requirements are Business Requirements

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Software and technology are bringing a lot of changes to our lives - just think of the things in the news set to make waves in the near future - robots, AI, blockchain, and self-driving vehicles.

If only part of the revolutionary claims for this tech comes true, the world will look very different.

It's exciting.

This cocktail of technologies brings a lot of opportunity as well a great deal of upheaval.

One thing I've noticed about this digitally transformed world: every technical requirement of a project is also a business requirement.

I've often heard these words spoken: "That's just technical detail."

But I agree with less and less as time goes on.

It sounds wrong now. Just a technical detail? What product are we building here?

Yet it's true, in a way. It is a technical detail. But that doesn't mean that it isn't important or you can just ignore it or you can pretend to ignore it until it becomes a problem.

So how do we deal with this?

Over time we'll all benefit from current changes in eduction - more focus on reasoning, outcomes, and learning code will help. More people who know what code is and who have written a line or two will help demystify the whole thing a bit.

Business people: You need technical awareness and patience and you need to ask the good questions. Again, eduction will help.

Technical people: You also need patience and improved listening and communication skills. I've written before about the pain of the unasked question. Ignoring hard questions because you don't like the answer isn't OK. Ask the question you know is there.

We all need to get better at explaining trade-offs in non-technical ways. This really shouldn't be that hard.

But what is the quickest fix? What can happen now? Where do I see people stumble?

The answer is more agile adoption and commitment to great product owners.

I'm currently reading Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland. Here's their quote, that I like the best on this. The Product Owner:

Needed to spend half their time talking to people buying the product (getting their thoughts on the latest incremental release and how it delivered value) and half their time with the team creating the Backlog (showing them what the customers valued and what they didn't).

That would definitely help a team move fast and understand the right technical/business requirements very quickly.

It's why I believe so strongly that Agile is the right methodology and that following as closely as possible to the recommendations makes sense. I've seen a lot of product owners who did a lot of the first or a lot of the second, but only a few who did a great job of balancing both (and who were given the organizational bandwidth and charter to do it).

Today everything - every part of an application - is a business requirement. Waiting around for business experts to answer questions, when they have many other responsibilities, is a delay that almost no one can afford any more.

We all have to go fast.

And we all need the business expertise and customer awareness built into our teams.