Making product ownership a priority

If you’re going to build any ‘digital’ capability, start with product

It’s important that the organisations dxw work with have full ownership over the product and its outcomes, particularly by the time we finish our work with them. That means taking responsibility for the full end-to-end service across different channels.

Product ownership is essential for successfully delivering services that meet user needs, as well as organisational objectives (like meeting a legislative requirement or saving money). One of the first questions we ask when we’re pitching for new work or speaking to a new client is 

“Who’s the product owner?”

Unfortunately, too often we find that organisations don’t have product owners / managers working with the delivery team, and sometimes there’s not even a clear service owner responsible for longer term strategy and budgets.  

The Government Service Manual talks about the importance of both roles. In some organisations, neither exist.

Why having a great product owner is so important

Product owners should be embedded in delivery teams. They are critical for guiding the team. They prioritise the work to be done, including accepting new work, and ensure the goals and vision for a service get delivered. 

A great product owner really cares about the issues they are looking to solve. They are good communicators, and motivate the delivery team to care about the issue(s) in the same way they do. 

They are able to navigate from a strategic level through to the micro layers of a problem area, so they achieve the outcomes needed while also understanding the product and technology decisions made along the way.

Just having a product owner isn’t enough

There are a number of things that need to be put in place for a product owner to be effective. They need to be empowered to make decisions, have sufficient backing from stakeholders in the organisation to deliver their vision, as well as access to a multidisciplinary team who will do the work.

The consequences of not placing enough importance on this role are stark, and it’s not just a problem in government.

What to do about it

The public sector, and particularly central government, have done lots to build and invest in product capability but there’s a long way to go. 

It’s still not viewed as the most important role in a team. In our experience, skills like user research and delivery tend to come first. The advice we give to any organisation embarking on digital transformation is that if you’re going to build any ‘digital’ capability, start with product.

Before hiring someone, look internally first. It’s important that product owners have deep knowledge and insight of the organisation, its goals and long-term strategy.  They also need to care about users and be enthusiastic about bringing lots of different skill sets together to solve problems. They don’t need to be technical – ‘the service’ isn’t just the digital bit

You might be surprised by who you’ll find with most of these skills, and the rest can come with a bit of coaching and learning by doing.

Shifting the mindset

This shift in mindset and way of working takes time, but it’s important to recognise that it doesn’t always require lots of investment. 

There are so many communities, networks and blog posts written about product ownership.  To find out more, we recommend checking out 18F and Department for Education as well as Steve Messer and Ross Ferguson.