Corporate Product Ownership: A Stepping Stone to Product Management
Use it then lose it on your path to becoming a kick ass Product Manager
I started my career in Product Management in 2013. I was part of a large insurance corporate and I got the opportunity to step into the role of a Product Owner in a pretty amazing Scrum team.
What did I learn in this role? How to deliver projects and business cases using Scrum.
What didn’t I learn? Full Scope of Product Management.
I only learnt this when I leveraged my experience and got hired by a software product company. So why should you use then lose your Corporate Product Ownership role?
My observations are based on my own personal experience of moving through the different environments of corporate versus product companies.
So lets break it down and understand why you need to move on once you’ve learnt and experienced the basics.
Getting into a career in Product Management is a bit of a mystery, and like most people I’ve talked to, I stumbled into the role by accident.
That accident however was facilitated by the way businesses are transforming their approach to internal software development. I got in because Agile Transformation was sweeping it’s way through (and continues now) the corporate world.
Product Ownership is a great gateway into Product Management. Why?
- You will learn how to deliver working software
- You will learn how to communicate desired change in software / hardware to engineers through a backlog
- You will learn how to facilitate and be part of solution creation
- You will learn how to bridge the gap between business and technology
The end result is someone who is good at delivering. There is nothing wrong with being good at it also, it’s how Project Managers have valued their efforts since the dark ages.
It’s only a part of the picture of Product Management though. When I understood this, I saw myself as nothing more than a glorified Backlog Manager.
When I started to feel like a glorified Backlog Manager I started to feel frustrated.
I had read all the books about what Product Owners strive to become when part of a Scrum team. I wanted to be that person that was able to both understand the why behind what we were doing and be accountable for the result with the team.
The problem is that I was part of a poorly design system in this corporate environment. It saw me and the team as a mechanism for delivery only. We were a Delivery team (Check out Marty Cagan’s Feature vs Product team for a full definition here).
At the time we were running SAFe 4.0 and it was not empowering as a Product Owner. In the end we were handed fully fledged out business cases to deliver on which resulted in some pretty weird things going on.
Example: The case for Self Service in Personal Insurance.
The business case came complete with a full cost and time estimate, along with having a payback period of 2.5 to 3 years (This was the threshold to meet to get the business case approved internally. It also described at a high level what the feature would be. Only then was it handed to us to size. Can you see a fatal flaw here?
We sized it, communicated it back, and then we were asked to resize it because it didn’t fit the business case….it was at this moment that I knew I had to leave.
Other examples I’ve seen is where the engineering team is actually put in a ‘Delivery’ box in the organizational chart.
The bad thing about being a Corporate Product Owner, is that it isn’t your fault. The design of the system and the resulting environment doesn’t allow you to become a fully realized Product Owner. The only thing your at fault of is staying hoping it will get better.
I have to give massive praise to all the Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters who are trying to transform corporations to move away from traditional command and control styles to autonomous and accountable teams.
But the ugly side is that Product Owners are getting the raw end of the deal. They are being told one thing from the literature and success stories, but another from their employer.
When stuck in this system you will only get so far.
You won’t get the excitement of crafting a Product Strategy with your peers based on business and customer problems that have been identified through effective discovery….you’ll just get to execute on it.
You won’t get the rush of observing and measuring your results on customers and the business…you’ll just get to execute on the next thing.
You won’t get the enjoyment of being part of an autonomous team who are kicking ass and solving problems…you’ll just be frustrated with doing things that might not make sense and hard to get the team motivated.
Overall you wont get the best opportunity to discover and create value through Product Management that is great for your customers and generates results for your business.
Only through leaving my corporate role and joining a product company was I able to experience what real Product Management felt like. It was a bit of a chasm to jump, but one I appreciated. I also wouldn’t trade my beginnings for anything else either.
You can be a kick ass Corporate Product Owner, there is a huge need for them to help large companies evolve the way the create technology products and services.
If you are in a true Product team in a large corporate environment, then you are one of the lucky ones!
Through my experience, I was able to accelerate my knowledge in Product Management by changing my environment and I highly recommend you do the same if you feel the following:
- Role is primarily focused on delivering, and not discovering.
- Constantly reorganizing a roadmap and backlog to fit things in — a.k.a Project Managing / Backlog Manager.
- You don’t feel accountable for the outcome of your changes, only accountable for delivering the change itself.
- You are being handed solutions, not problems.
Use your Corporate Product Owner role as your stepping stone to fully fledged Product Management. Do the time and you’ll reap the rewards further down the line. It is a valuable skill to know how to deliver working software, but it’s even more valuable to know how to discover and create value for customers and the business. This is Product Management.