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April 26, 2017

Product Owners: Help Your Senior Leaders Give You Useful Feedback

4 mins read

Has this happened to you? You are giving a demo to a stakeholder who is not familiar with development. They give you vague feedback like “it’s not intuitive” or insist on changes that are peripheral to achieving the product vision. They’re not happy, but they don’t have the language to tell you why.

As a product owner in an organization, you spend a lot of time talking to senior leaders about your product. Often, these conversations are not productive, because the senior leader isn’t giving useful feedback. How can you coach them?

Help them articulate the concern.

Frequently feedback turns into providing solutions instead of describing the problem to be solved. Instead of jumping to make the changes they dictate, ask clarifying questions to determine the source of the concern. Is it a preference about design or is it a usability issue? Does the change they are suggesting support a new organizational initiative you didn’t know about? Walk through any downstream implications of their proposed change to see how it affects the product – ask if that is what they have in mind.

Be prepared for a curveball.

Whenever you meet with a senior leader, especially one that is not in regular contact with your team, expect a change of direction. Sometimes these changes are arbitrary, but sometimes they are based on information they cannot share with you.

You can prepare for a proposed change in priorities by doing your homework as a PO. Have a high-level, clear roadmap to show them and an estimated, prioritized backlog. Show them what your team is planning to deliver, and ask them to help you realign the roadmap to address their new priority.

Differentiate between simple and complex changes.

If your stakeholder is not technical, they won’t understand what it will take to implement their feedback. Heck, in the room, we usually don’t know either! If you are sure it is a simple change, ask them to help you prioritize it on the backlog. Do not be intimidated into saying yes to a change that might cost you weeks of development time. Promise to take the feedback to the team and come back to the stakeholder when you know more.

Don’t be a go-between.

Of course, your existing roadmap and backlog were probably built with the input of several other stakeholders. Remember that agile surfaces dysfunction in an organization so that you can resolve it. If senior leader A wants priority X and senior leader B claims priority X is not important, A and B need to talk to each other, not through you. Senior leaders are people too. They have weaknesses … like hating confrontation. If you are skilled at facilitation, you might offer to assist them with the conversation.

Don’t rely on Agile knowledge.

Too often as Agilists, we become so absorbed in our way of looking at the world, we forget others have different perspectives. At this point, most executives have at least some familiarity with Agile principles. Generally, they remember the parts they like, such as “I can change my mind” and “Agile is fast.” If you refuse to let them completely change development priorities for a team halfway through a sprint, they will think you are being obstinate rather than doing your job as a PO. Explain to them what the team is working on right now, and what they can expect to see at the end of the sprint. Emphasize the momentum the team has, and the motivation to deliver – then let them make the call about whether to redirect the team or not.

Documentation is not ammunition.

One way to ensure a cranky senior leader is to directly confront them with their own inconsistency. Just because you have notes from the last meeting where they said they wanted the button to be red does not mean you should remind them of that when they demand the button be turned blue. On the other hand, do ask how best to keep them informed. Find out how often they want to meet with you, and stick to it.

Make use of the opportunity.

If there are obstacles that the person you are meeting can help you address, bring them up. It’s important not to complain. Just give them the facts and jointly develop concrete steps they can take to help. Don’t mention an issue if there’s nothing the person can do. That’s whining and a waste of their time.

Having productive conversations with senior leaders pays dividends in your team’s ability to deliver what the organization needs, now and in the future.

Ms. Horowitz has consulted with several federal agencies including the United States Postal Service, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. Currently she is helping the Office of Personnel Management with the redevelopment of USA Staffing, a talent management system for new Federal civilian employees. She is a Certified Scrum Professional® and a Project Management Professional®. In addition to her work for OPM, Ms. Horowitz leads Excella’s ImpaX program.

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