Busting a digital myth: The naturally gifted product owner

by Santiago Comella-Dorda, Christopher Paquette, Lois Schonberger, and Suman Thareja

Every great sports movie has the “preparation” scene: Exercising, training, equipping, running uphill in the snow, waxing the car, shooting countless basketball free throws in an empty gym. The stars know they won’t be successful without the disciplined reps, and when the time comes, they succeed because they’ve put in the time and work.

While there isn’t likely to be a movie with a product owner (PO) as the hero anytime soon, the best of them have a lot in common with an elite athlete. A great PO is committed to spending time in the development “gym”: learning new hard skills, practicing softer leadership skills, internalizing a passion for the role, being observed and coached by expert peers, scanning the market for the next innovation, and applying these learnings in real life. This new breed of PO is a must-have for companies that want to be truly digital. The speed, adaptability, and cross-channel nature of digital require a PO who brings those skills.

Googling “how to be a great digital product owner” doesn’t cut it, given the gravity of their accountabilities. They must be the “linchpins” between the product-creation teams (including disciplines like digital, analytics, and operations) and the business. They must be the key decision maker who  guides the product roadmap. Why are these skills so hard to master and apply?

  1. They need to do a lot of things well. PO responsibilities span a dynamic spectrum of hard and soft skills, and require a constant balance between strategic business goals and complex tactical objectives. They are the voice of the customer, but also play a critical and embedded decision-making role within their team. They must be leaders, counselors, innovators, and customer advocates. They need to understand the latest practices in customer research, design thinking, business strategy, and technical architecture, and wrap it all in a bow of composure while they make decisions under fire that influence key stakeholders. Strong problem-solving and leadership intrinsics are a great start but insufficient for the long game.
  2. They need to work well with a broad array of people. By necessity, POs must interact from top to bottom of the organization and across multiple functions, as well as externally. They must seamlessly transition from discussing business results with senior executives, to driving the technical “art of the possible” with the front-line development team, to problem-solving product strategy with marketing leadership, to working with end users to validate new feature concepts through prototypes and testing. They must evaluate options from multiple viewpoints and know how to speak the language of various parts of the business to be able to influence people and guide good decision making.
  3. It takes time to develop these skills. In the heat of the moment, decisions are made quickly, and the best POs seem to make them instinctively. Solutions to common problems such as how to rope in a passionate executive, which customer feedback to prioritize, what constitutes a minimum viable product (MVP), or how to untangle a complex feature, seem to come easily to the practiced PO. But this ease under pressure doesn’t come without practice. Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours would confirm that, much like an athlete making a free throw or a penalty kick, great POs must develop a kind of “muscle memory” to guide their toughest choices. While the exact circumstances will vary, many of the challenges to successful product delivery follow patterns that can be recognized or even predicted.

So, if this is more “nurture” than “nature,” and if being a great PO takes focus and structured learning, practice and repetitions, plus time and coaching, then how do the best organizations nurture their product owners?

  • Build foundational strength. Athletes hit the right weights in the right way to exercise the right muscles for their sport. They build up their baseline for cardio activity to be able to perform when they must. Great POs in the making hit “building block” educational materials, such as how to write great user stories, how to manage a backlog, and how to manage stakeholder conflict. They work with others to practice these foundations both in formal and informal learning environments.
  • Learn the playbook. Athletes practice the plays that will matter over and over—serves, free throws, penalty kicks, and field goals. Great POs in the making rehearse for the moments that matter, such as managing stakeholder conflict, over and over again in a safe setting.
  • Game plan as a team. Athletes know their game plan—who will do what, when, where, and how—and they practice the game plan together. Great POs in the making are just as diligent in practicing what it takes to develop a good game plan and, using simulations, working through them with their teams.
  • Embrace their trainer’s advice. Athletes rely on their coaches to get them to the next level. Good coaches hold up a mirror and provide perspective. Great POs in the making also have support: agile coaches, mentors, and sponsors in their organizations. These coaches observe, provide feedback, and push the POs to be better every day.
  • Prepare, prepare again, and then keep preparing. The best athletes squeeze practice into every possible moment, finding creative ways to get better whenever they can. Great POs in the making ensure that every minute counts. They absorb bite-size content, review the latest industry thinking on their mobile, and embrace “nudge” techniques for real-time behavior change, such as “How are you helping your stakeholders balance the hard choices between features?”

Not investing in this level of capability building can be costly. For example, a product team in the hospitality industry spent two years and $30 million building a reception-desk tool for all their locations. Rollout revealed that the product owners designed what they thought the “customers” (front-desk agents) wanted. But the customers didn’t value the features and didn’t appreciate the poorly designed experience. The tool was scrapped. The product owners had not been trained to engage with the customers to test ideas properly, and they didn’t understand how to navigate and prioritize the demands of disparate stakeholders (desk agents, hotel managers, corporate, and technology).

So, over the course of the next 16 weeks, they went back to the drawing board, with an eye to improving product ownership. Coaches were embedded with the product team and began a structured program of formal training, one-on-one coaching, and in-field pairing. They learned customer experience, effective user testing, creative prototyping, feature prioritization, and stakeholder management. The tool was relaunched just months later. This time, customers were receptive, and—most importantly—the product owners had developed the skills to be successful the first time.

Greatness as a PO is an investment, but it’s worth it. Product owners are the linchpins between business and technology, and a critical foundation for a successful digital transformation.

Santiago Comella-Dorda is a partner in McKinsey’s Boston office, Christopher Paquette is a partner in the Chicago office, Lois Schonberger is a senior expert in the Washington, DC, office, and Suman Thareja is an associate partner in the New York office.

For more information on best practices in building capabilities for a digital world, contact digital_academy_team@mckinsey.com.