Twice in the past three months, I’ve recommended bringing on a product owner at two of the high-tech, high-growth startups I work with.
In both cases, the startup’s leadership wasn’t exactly sure what I meant. Don’t get me wrong, these are startups with multimillion-dollar run rates, led by people with decades of experience. So sure, they knew what a product owner was, kind of, they just weren’t crystal clear on what the product owner would do and what benefits they would bring to, you know, the product.
This was fine — better than fine, actually, because I’m using the lowercase “product owner” instead of the uppercase Scrum/Agile-oriented “Product Owner.”
It was also a plus because they didn’t know enough to do it wrong. So I clarified that what they needed was a superuser. And then it all made sense.
What Is a Superuser?
The Term ‘Product Owner’ Immediately Takes the Customer Out of the Equation
While I’m a fan of parts of Scrum and some of the benefits of Agile, I put them in the same unholy mess of a bucket with all the PMI/PMP project management tools and methods that are shockingly still out there.
My thinking has always been this: If everyone on your team isn’t a project manager (as in: actually managing their own projects), with their own understanding of requirements and their own motivation for hitting deadlines, your deliverables will always be late and wrong, regardless of how many Gantt charts, status meetings and project kickoffs you throw at them.
The same holds true for Scrum/Agile product management. It’s the same bloat, only for more creative people. Installing that kind of product owner is like squeezing the pipe between customer and developer, creating an unnecessary bottleneck while also removing all real product ownership from the people actually building the product.
When the product owner is a proxy for the “voice of the customer,” your product team is no longer listening to the customer, your product team is listening to a member of your own product team.
Product Owners Should Be Problem Owners
The product team owns the product. In that, they own the solution that solves the customer’s problems, and the product is the conduit that solves said problems.
What the product team doesn’t — and shouldn’t — own is the problem. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen products fail instead of mature because the product team took the easy path to growth, not by building a better solution but by changing the scope and definition of the problem and solving that instead.
The problem is the domain of the product owner. This is the person I want on my product team, right about when my startup begins generating million-dollar run rates. Here’s why.
A Problem Worth Solving Doesn’t Go Away Quietly
Anyone who has ever created a great product that solves a thorny problem in an elegant and cost-effective way will tell you that their solution remains elegant and cost-effective for a very short period of time.
Big problems don’t just disappear when the solution is applied. If the problem is worthy enough to solve, it’ll have sub-problems and super-problems. If the solution is worthy enough to succeed, there will be other tangential problems that the product might also be successful solving.
With truly great products, it’s both. And while you may have an amazing product capable of solving these problems, if you want to maintain growth — like rocket-ship-blasting-off growth — you need a superuser to figure out how your product can solve those problems.
This is not your product team, who is charged with advancing the elegance and cost effectiveness of the solution. This is someone from the other side who is intimately familiar with both the problems (old and new) and your product. And that means everything about your product, whether it’s useful or elegant or not, features your developers probably forget about a week after they’re delivered.
The superuser role is threefold:
Figure out how to use your product to solve the old problems better (more elegantly) and faster (more cost-effectively).
Figure out how to use your product to solve new problems whenever possible.
Figure out why your product doesn’t solve additional new problems.
This is not an owner, that is your product team. This is not the “voice of the customer,” your customer is the voice of your customer. This is the translator between an ever-expanding problem and an ever-maturing solution.
And that’s the secret to high-growth success.