Friday, March 2, 2018

Results from No Product Owner Experiment

Four months ago my team embarked on an experiment to change the way the team worked in an uncomfortable way. We called it "No Product Owner" experiment because it captures one core aspect of it. It was essentially about empowering a team to be customer obsessed without a decision proxy, in an organization where many people believe in finding one person responsible to be a core practice.

Four months later, the experiment is behind us. We continue working in the product-ownerless mode as the team's de facto way of working. The team is still very much an experiment within the organization, and our ways are not being spread elsewhere as we in the team like to keep our focus on the team, technical excellence and delivery.

Experiment hypothesis

We approached the No Product Owner suggestion as an experiment, as it had many things none of us had experience on. There was still the person in the organization that was hired to be the team's product owner. The team wasn't all super-experienced mega-seniors but a diverse group.

When thinking of the assumption we would be testing with this, we came to think of it as customer-obsessed team directly in touch with their customers performs better without a proxy. 

Better is vague, so we talked about looking at the released output from the team. Not all the tasks we could tinker on given the full freedom, but the value delivered for customer's benefit.

Happened before this experiment...

To understand what happened, there's some things that happened already before. We did not just talk about them as "grand experiments" that would be shared anywhere. They were just our way of tweaking our ways of working by trying out what could work, and not all did.

We had experimented with backlog visibility by using post-its on a wall in form of a kanban board, using all electronic kanban board, and not using a kanban board but a list of things we were working on within the team. The last worked best for us, we did not find much value in the flow, just the visibility (and discussions). We had experimented with the product owner location in relation to the team having him in the team room, and later on different floor. We had learned to do frequent releases, and through learning to do that stopped estimating and focusing on fast delivery of continuous value.

The frequent releasing, in particular, was the reigns of the team keeping us synchronized. The value sitting on shelf in the codebase not visible and available to our users wasn't value but just potential of it. It had transformed the ways we designed our features, and helped us learn splitting features always asking if there was something smaller in the same direction we could deliver first.

We also had no scrum master. At all. For years. No team-level facilitator, and our manager is very hands-off always available when called type with about 50 people to manage. 

Introducing No Product Owner

I blogged about the first activity to No Product Owner already months ago. We listed together all the expectations we had towards a product owner, and talked about how our expectations would change. We moved the person assigned Product Owner to a role we framed as Product Management Expert, and agreed his purpose towards the team was very straightforward: requirements trawling. He would sit through meetings, pick up the valuable nuggets and bring them back to the team for the team to decide what to do with the information.

Team embraced the change, and level of energy became very high. The discussions were more purposeful. We started talking directly to our sales organization, to our real customers over email and in various communities. We increased our transparency, but also our responsiveness.

In the first month, there were several occasions where the PME would join team meetings on a cadence, and express things in the format "I want you to..." to find themselves corrected. The team wants. The team decides. The team prioritize. The power is with the developers.

And our team of developers (including testers who are also developers) did well.

From High Energy to New Impacts

Before starting the experiment, we were preparing a major architectural change effort, and there were certain business critical promises attached to that change effort. As soon as the experiment started, we sat with sales engineers talking about the problem. An hour later, we had new solutions. A week later, the new solution was delivered. The impossible-without-architecture-change turned possible, understanding (and finding motivating) the real needs, and the real pain.

Throughout the experiment, I kept a diary of the new impacts. The impacts are visible in a few categories:
  • Taking responsibility of real customer's experience. We had a fix that is delivered in a complicated way through the organization's various teams, and we did not only do the fix like usually, but we followed through on the exact date the solution was available to solve the customers problem.
  • Fixing customer problems over handing the off through prioritization organizations. We hooked real users with problems directly to the people fixing problems. The throughput time increased, and we did fixes I can claim we would not have done before. 
  • Delivering customer-oriented documentation when there was a solution but it needed guidance.
  • Coordinating work across organization on level of technical details to increase the speed of solutions, removing handoffs. 
  • Coming up with ways of doing requested features that brought down the risk and scope of first deliveries, enabling continuous flow of value. 
  • Coming up with features that were not requested that the team could work on to improve the product.
  • Adding configurable telemetry to understand our product better in a data-driven way
There's two particular highlight days.

21 days into the experiment the team received feedback that  their latest demo was particularly good and focused on the customer value. When confronted with the feedback, the team considered it as "that's what we're supposed to do now" - we are customer-focused.

65 days into the experiment the team realizes the last appearance of the product management expert in planning was around day 55. There were other channels to maintain pulse of what might be important than the structure.

There was one particular low  or risky day.

40 days into the experiment the team reallocated 3/4 programmers and 1/3 testers to work on things outside the usual team scope.

Interestingly, the reallocation after 40 days took the already customer-obsessed developers and moved them to work on something where they could still implement the responsibility assignment. The subteam ended up representing the business like in the cross-business line effort without needing a matching role to the other business line's product owner. Progress on the tasks with the high motivation while feeling empowered has also been great. 2.5 months into a 9 month plan there is an idea that we might be done in 4 or 5 instead, while still bloating that effort with necessary improvements over following the plan.

Team Retrospective

After the 90 days period, we had a team retrospective with the ex product owner and talked about what changed. The first almost unanimous feeling was that nothing changed. Things flowed just as before.

The details revealed that there might have been change we did not appreciate.
We delivered about twice the amount/size of things of value as in the two previous 3-month intervals, all of them assessed after through discussions, not through the estimates.
We were more motivated, regardless of the team split that was temporary (even if for 9 months).
We did things we were not doing before, without having to drop things we were doing before.

I can now believe in magical things happening in very short timeframe. I couldn't before. Some of the things never reached us before to help us keep focus, and turned into big things that could never be done.

We did not magically have more people available. But the people we had available were more driven, more focused, more collaborative and believed more in themselves in their ability to take things through to customers.

Not using time and energy on estimating and the value of that became evidently clear with the taskforced subteam inflicted into an environment where estimates were the core. The thinking around opportunity cost - what else could one do with the time used estimating - became more clear.

Finally, we looked at what the Product Management Expert did. They reported higher job satisfaction and less stress. They reported they focused on strategic thinking and business analysis.

No one remembered any pieces of information the PME requirement trawling or the strategic thinking would have brought to the three months, so there is value potentially not delivered through to customer (or work wasted as it has no impact).

Improving the ways of connecting product management and RnD efforts is a worthwhile area of tasks to continue on. There may be a need of rethinking what and RnD team is capable of without an allocated, named product owner.

There was also some rumours around that I've really assumed the de-facto product owner role, but I assure I haven't. Things flowed just as well while I took my 3 week winter vacation, and spent at least another 2 weeks in conferencing around the world.

Every single team member acted in the product owner role. Every one. Including the 16-yo intern.

I couldn't be much more proud of my colleagues. It is a pleasure to change the world in our little way with them. Without a product owner.