The Most Successful Software Teams Have Empowered Product Owners

Projects and products fail for all sorts of reasons. Some fail because the team executes great ideas poorly. Other times, they are under-capitalized. At Atomic Object, our goal is to eliminate as many of these failure points as possible. A common failure point that is entirely avoidable happens when the business doesn’t empower a product owner. They aren’t allowed to truly own the product and everything that comes with that. So, what does an empowered product owner look like?

1. They have availability.

People that often find themselves in the product owner role are the high performers. They have a proven track record of getting things done. As a result, they’re given more and more responsibilities, product ownership being just a slice of the whole. They get spread too thin and experience burnout and competing priorities.

In order for a product owner to be successful in planning, prioritizing, and supporting a team building a product, they need, at a minimum, 50% of their time dedicated to that product, but the more the better. That way, they can spend valuable time creating a vision, managing stakeholder expectations, and understanding the challenges and triumphs of their team.

2. They can shape the product.

In my experience, many businesses start building a product by defining all the features they want to include in it. They spend weeks, even months, planning. Then, the output ends up being a list of very concrete features they want delivered as part of the product.

The product owner’s role at this point is more of a product manager. They’re working to deliver a set of pre-defined features. They may have some authority to make small tradeoff decisions, but at the end of the day, they are building to a spec.

Marty Cagan argues that, instead, product owners and their teams should receive the product vision and the business objectives. Product owners are entrusted to decide how best to solve those problems.

Suddenly, the product owner is in a position of decision-making authority. They have the power to decide what to build and how to build it. Naturally, this leads to more engagement and also more accountability.

3. They control the budget (mostly).

If a primary goal is to provide space for a product owner to become highly involved in their team, then they can’t spend time creating polished PowerPoint decks, outlining the eight reasons why they need additional budget, and spend even more time regurgitating said PowerPoint to four different levels of management to get approval.

Within reason (not doubling the budget, e.g.), a product owner should have the autonomy or near autonomy to make budget extension decisions. On the most successful projects I worked on, there were maybe one or two informal conversations with stakeholders outlining the need for an extension. I heard phrases from stakeholders in response such as, “Whatever you think is best,” and, “I trust you.”

There are plenty of legitimate reasons products fail. Don’t let yours be that you didn’t empower your product owner to do everything they could to deliver success for your business. Set your team up for success by giving your product owners the time and authority to deliver for you.