Taking on the role of a product owner means committing to provide the greatest benefit to the product, the customers, and the business in the long run. It often means having skills to assess tradeoffs and negotiate with multiple stakeholders so you can stand up for value – and avoid the dreaded technical debt trap.
While it does sound pretty straightforward, the reality is far from it. Unfortunately, product owners are often sucked into so many competing priorities and stakeholder demands. Without the right systems in place, product owners find themselves pulled in different directions and diverted from the long-term vision.
Product owners within large enterprise companies are in a unique position. Like other product owners, their main purpose is to launch successful products that provide value to the business and its customers. At the same time, they may not have the same influence or decision-making power as a product leader in a small to medium business. So, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
If this sounds close to your experience, you’re not alone. Product owners from all levels of experience can feel trapped by the constant bombardment of new ideas and trends to try. The good news is there are tools and principles you can use to gain the know-how and skills to stand up for value.
In this article, you’ll gain insights into the mindset, principles and tools that help product owners make better decisions and create a system for long-term value creation.
Why You Need to Stand Up for Value
Knowing how to stand up for value is critical to the role of a product owner. Firstly, product owners are at the intersection of business, development, and customer service. You’ll be inundated with requests from different stakeholders. This will often lead to product owners succumbing to pressure to prioritize shiny new ideas over critical ongoing development without proper consideration. Ultimately, you risk sacrificing the product’s long-term viability and burning out yourself and the team.
As a product leader, I’ve seen and done a lot of things I am proud of. I’ve also made some questionable decisions. Early on in my career, I placed a lot of bets on short-term gains. It was great to see how those quick wins were impacting our company’s bottom line almost instantly and motivating our team to keep moving forward. I thought that as long as it’s the outcomes and outputs are good, then we were on the right track to achieve our long-term vision faster. Not quite.
By the time we needed to perform a critical but routine update, I realized that we had accumulated a mountain of technical debt. The routine was anything but simple. Instead, it became slow, painful, and expensive. It sucked.
While I had to learn that lesson the hard – and expensive – way, you don’t have to. Having the confidence to make decisions based on long-term value, whether you’re a new or experienced product owner, starts with having a system that allows you to collaborate with different stakeholders.
Let’s start with a practical tool I like to use to visualize enduring value over quick and unsustainable wins.
What is a Value Orientation Matrix?
The Value Orientation Matrix is a tool I use to clarify how different combinations of ideas and processes can impact the product’s value. The concept is adapted from prioritization matrices, which are often made up of quadrants and groups actions on their relative value and relative effort.
It is especially helpful for product owners who are just getting started and are building the muscle to stand up for value. In fact, we share this with participants of our ICagile certified Agile Product Owner cohort-based learning program to help them build the muscle and confidence to stand up for long-term value.
Maximizing Value: Doing the Right Thing, the Right Way
Understanding where you are in the product development process will help you orient how to move forward. This matrix is designed to help you maximize value based on the data and information you’ve gathered through experimentation and talking to customers.
Let’s take a closer look at what every quadrant represents:
Quadrant 1: Doing the Right Thing in the Right Way
Congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot. When ideas and processes work well together, it’s a good indication of the product’s sustained and long-term value. Here are some scenarios where teams have chosen to work on the right thing in the right way:
- Developing a robust and user-friendly onboarding process to ensure new users have a seamless experience when first using the product, increasing adoption and long-term engagement.
- Investing in a scalable infrastructure that can handle increased user demand and growth, ensuring the product remains stable and performs well even during peak usage periods.
You’ll want to spend the majority of your time working in this quadrant, these are the proven deliverables that will maximize value and you’re delivering them in the right way, iteratively and incrementally.
Quadrant 2: Doing the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way
This is the worst-case scenario when trying to maximize value. The combination of working on the wrong solution with the wrong process can lead to slow failure, which means finding out too late that a feature you’re working on will not produce any value for the company or the customer. It can look like the following situations:
- Neglecting to address usability issues reported by users, instead focusing solely on adding new features, results in a product that becomes increasingly difficult to navigate and causes frustration among users.
- Ignoring industry trends and failing to adapt the product to changing customer needs, leading to decreased relevance and ultimately losing customers to competitors.
Try and avoid this scenario by at least running smaller experiments and adopting a build-measure-learn cycle whereby you map assumptions and reduce the uncertainty of working on the wrong thing through smaller steps.
Quadrant 3: Doing the Wrong Thing but in the Right Way
This quadrant produces the most opportunities for learning. Since you have the right systems and processes in place, you should be able to correct or pivot from the “bad” idea. For instance:
- Implementing a pricing strategy based on market research and competitor analysis but realizing that the chosen pricing model doesn’t resonate with the target audience. However, due to effective monitoring and data analysis, the mistake is quickly identified, and pricing is adjusted to regain market appeal.
- Launching a marketing campaign targeting a specific demographic, only to discover that it doesn’t generate the expected results. Through diligent analytics and monitoring, the campaign is swiftly modified and retargeted to a more receptive audience, minimizing losses and optimizing reach.
Quadrant 4: Doing the Right Thing but in the Wrong Way
While this situation may not seem harmful at first, pursuing the right idea in the wrong way can quickly lead you down a path of quick but unsustainable wins. In this case, you’re providing value without considering the impact of the new feature or idea on the viability and feasibility of the product. For example:
- Recognizing the importance of user engagement and deciding to launch a loyalty program, but implementing it with a complex and confusing redemption process discourages user participation.
- Investing in customer support to improve user satisfaction but failing to provide adequate training and resources to support agents, resulting in long response times and inconsistent service quality.
When using this value matrix, you’d like to focus on the ideas and process that leads you to value or learning. In order to fully maximize the use of this tool, you’ll need to create levers and criteria to test throughout the product’s journey.
How to Use the Matrix to Clarify and Standup for Value
This matrix is not a standalone tool, especially when looking to negotiate tradeoffs and maximize value. Instead, you should use the matrix as part of a series of visual and collaboration tools for your stakeholders to understand and align on what actions can produce enduring success when paired with the right process.
One tool we like to use in combination with the Value Orientation Matrix is the Value Proposition Canvas. By using a combination of these two tools, you can further clarify whether the ideas are contributing to the ultimate value of the product. When doing so, you would want to look closely at the ideas you find on the right-hand side of the matrix. Do these ideas resonate with the value we want to achieve? Do they have the potential for success? What processes or systems might we be able to introduce to improve the outcomes?
Another great way to leverage the Value Orientation Matrix is by identifying the levers for ultimate product success. You can think of these levers as thresholds to consider when making decisions about the tradeoffs you might need to make in the product’s journey.
These levers may consider the amount of time spent adding new features, amount of time spent experimenting with new ideas, amount of time spent refactoring technical debt, amount of time spent improving your processes, or time spent iterating on ideas from acquired feedback. Each of these requires some time spent, but you’ll want to set a budget and threshold based on your business context.
The lack of these levers is most apparent in the left-hand side of the matrix where you might be executing ideas in the wrong way because you didn’t allocate enough time previously in some of those areas. So, when you create the categories think about how you can make time to improve processes, as well as building new features, doing experiments, and considering customer feedback. Having levers in place can support you in clarifying and sustaining long-term value. By clarifying those categories, you can promote a more balanced approach to product development.
Finally, the use of the Value Orientation Matrix is based on collaboration and transparency. You’ll need to regularly check in with your team to better understand where you might be able to leverage experimentation, customer research, and process improvements to really maximize long-term value.
Being able to guide your team toward long-term growth while making short-term bets requires foresight, collaboration, and critical thinking. In order to grow your confidence, you’ll need to have systems in place to help you practice and build your skills.
Not only will you shift from short-term gains to long-term value, from silos to collaboration, and from a rigid approach to a flexible, co-creative one, you’ll find yourself becoming more confident and skilled in standing up for the value that benefits the customers and business.
So, while I had to learn the hard way, it forced me to look beyond the easiest and most obvious ideas. I started to map out every decision to our long-term vision. Yes, it’s challenging and time-consuming. But as I’ve learned from experience, focusing on immediate gains can result in long-term complications. Embrace the tradeoffs, welcome the challenges, and always strive to add enduring value.