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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Ardita Karaj on Helping Product Owners and Teams See the Value

Ardita Karaj on Helping Product Owners and Teams See the Value


2. It’s good to see you again, as always, now for our viewers can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Right. I am an Agile coach I currently work at EPAM in Canada, it’s a great company that offers a lot of opportunities for growth and as an Agile coach that’s what I like and I am enjoying working on, for the last year I have been the coach on a transformation for Canadian Tire which is a huge retail company in Canada so a lot of experience, a lot of learning, a lot of good things from there.

Todd: Nice. So tell us a little bit about what brings you here and then if perhaps some of that ties into it as well.

One of the things that brings me here except the weather is I was a speaker at one of the sessions here, “See the Value” I co-presented with Jeff Morgan or Cheesy that’s how everyone knows him.

Todd:That's his very professional name.

Yes, I just finished that session and I felt pretty good about it actually.

Todd: Nice, sounds like you got some great feedback in there.

Yes, I am really excited about the feedback and nobody left the room so that’s a good sign usually.


3. I would say. Obviously that sounds like it’s a very exciting topic, so what does it mean to see the value?

Right, so one of the things that we see when we work with teams is that usually the metrics or the things that we start to measure for delivery are either story points or the amount of stories that we produce every sprint, and we forget that the core of everything we do is about producing value for the customer. So the session that we had was about how to lead a team into prioritizing the work from the value point of view, not from velocity, not from the number of stories to produce but what is the value that it produces.

It is really focused on helping mostly product owners to help their team on doing the right thing and it starts with story mapping which is a great tool that Jeff Patton has created and we were lucky Jeff Patton came to our session, that was really great and we start with that tool, the story mapping just to help the team on putting together the work that they have ahead and how to visualize all the stories, all the work that they want to achieve in order to get something valuable for the customer. And then from there we have this concept of business value, where you give a thousand points to your product owner and you say “Between these thousand points which one is the most important out of these goals that you have on your story map”? Spread the thousand points into the most important goal having more points and the least important goal having less points and then you trickle that down into the story level, and that’s how you have a way to prioritize the stories and creating MVPs and creating some sort of release plan on how to get the team to deliver the highest value first and then build on top of it.

The second portion of it is now you can get this same thinking into a higher level into an enterprise level, where you have multiple projects that are for the same team, and you want the teams always to focus on the highest value, but this doesn’t mean that you start one project, you finish that and you start a second project, finish that and then the third and the forth. When you might find ways to deliver the highest value on project one and then move on to the next most important project on enterprise that makes sense for the company to release and then you can get back into other areas of the first project that you probably have to finish now and that you have more feedback from the customers and you can improve and you can continuously decide on what is the next most important thing for the team to work on.


4. So now, many things talk about value and Agile often talks about value, and you have these points for it, so for a product owner what does value really mean? How do they actually think about value? How does that manifest itself when they go through this exercise?

It’s interesting because that is one of the things you leave in the hands of the product owner and sometimes you make the product owner the only throat to choke when it comes into that decision. It is something that you really need to get from your customers, you really need to be close to your customers, you really need to understand their needs, you really need to understand what is the next thing that they want to hear, to see, to get from you, but on the other side you also need to consider the business needs of your company.

Because otherwise your customers might come with something that might cost your company a lot to produce but that doesn’t mean you really have to invest in that because it might tank your company when it comes into investment on that. So that is the art of the product owner where you get the highest value for the customer but you also need to consider your feedback from your technical team that tells you “Yes, we can do this but it’s going to cost you a lot, but if we do this one that is probably a lower value, it can give you a lot of benefits because it can get to the hands of customers faster”.

So it’s a combination of size, it’s a combination of value and it’s a combination of where does the company want to get to, what the market because based on the market that you want to go you can focus on the needs of different users. One of the examples that I say is for example iPad, I use iPad to read emails, while my daughter uses it to do Facetime; if you want to make me happy you want to improve email, while if you want to make my daughter happy you have to improve Facetime, so where do you want to go and that is the focus that product owners really need to work on and they can’t do it all by themselves. They really need feedback from everyone.


5. So you mentioned that the product owners have this value that they have to speak to the customers to really identify, do you find when you talk to product owners, do they generally already intrinsically know this, or is this something they have to learn how to do as well?

Great question, I have had teams where they come frustrated to me and they say “Our product owner has no idea what he is talking about, and they don’t know why they are choosing that feature we can do this other thing and it’s going to be way better” and I have had teams where the product owner has come to me and said “I am working so much, and I'm giving them options but the developers don’t come back to me with any answers.” So, I don’t know what to say on that but it’s a case-by-case thing, the usual answer “It depends”. Product owners definitely need to know their product. You are a product owner because there is some sort of expertise that you have to bring into this, it doesn’t matter what background you have, it doesn’t matter what school you have there is no certification, there is no school you are going to and now, you are a product owner, it’s about knowing the product, it’s about understanding the needs of the customers that you have, and it’s also about leadership. We forget that product owners have to be leaders because they are there to lead a team. And together with the team they have to be successful, they can’t be successful on their own.

So product owners definitely need to learn different ways of how to get feedback from customers, they can use surveys, they can use a lot of tools. Two tools that we probably have mentioned on our session is the hundred dollar allocation or the KANO model where you really can focus the needs of the customer and understand is this something that we need to invest or is this something nice to have or is this something that without it we can’t even get in the market. So understanding the needs of customers, understanding the effort, so product owners really need to work closely with their teams, with the dev teams to understand the effort that it takes it might be something really cool, something really great but it might cost a lot to get to that, so the negotiation is really key for product owners, it’s a really key feature that they need. So, there are a lot of things that the product owners need to have, and the good news is though is that they are all learnable. They can learn all this as long as they collaborate, they work with their team close, as long as they listen to their customers, and as long as they have the attitude that I want to learn, I want to grow, I want to get successful with the team not by myself, so they are all learnable.


6. Now there is always skills that product owners need to develop, so as a coach going in there, coaching product owners how does that differ from coaching the rest of the Agile team or what is your experience with it and any tips or suggestions?

It is actually one of the areas that I am really passionate about, because usually we start Agile transformation with Agile IT teams, and we go there and we teach them all about iterations, and we teach them all about continuous integration and then continuous delivery mindset and how demos and retrospectives are to be done, but usually business is considered as “They know what they want” and that is not always the case. Even product owners need some help with understanding now the team because all of a sudden from a business project manager or from a business partner now their title has changed to product owner and it’s quite a bit of a title, I own the product when to tell the truth they are not the only owners of the product, it’s the whole team that owns the product.

But they have now that name and they want some help into understanding what is the team expecting from them, and what he should expect from the team. So that is one area where I really like to put the mindset for product owners because they are probably used to go to the team with solutions most of the time and one of the things that I tell them is go with your need, go with the why and the what and let the team come up with the how because they are the experts, they know everything under the hood, they can tell you even better ways on how to achieve your business need. So go to them, bring your business need, bring your business goal and say why we want this, what do we expect, and help the team to come up with the right how.

That is the main mindset, but I like also to give them tools and tips, so story mapping for example is one of the great tools that a product owner can use. Project canvas is another tool that I have created; I have used it with my teams and has been really successful. It’s just a simple canvas with some areas where the product owner can start the conversation with the team so this is the goal that I want to achieve this is the urgency, this is why we need to do this work, these are the benefits you are going to get out of this, and these are the customers and then once a team understands these three things then get the team to come up with who do we need, so what kind of skill sets do we need to be part of this, what kind of solutions do we need to do is there any proof of concept that we can run quickly, to figure out on how to move. So, these tools, this thinking definitely help a product owner to move faster and I have to say, these people have impressed me, because usually they are in that position because they have gone through a lot they have seen the process and they have usually a good sense of the user experience, so when they come to the team they understand their product, they just need a little bit of that leadership and some tools to help them to get the team into doing the right thing.


7. What do you think are some of the challenges they are facing going down that path, you mentioned some of the things they have to learn, often time again just like the teams, there are a lot of push backs or things that come in, what do you think is one of the main things constraining them from fully hopping on board?

Budget is usually a big thing, because they have usually a limited budget on investing and they have to figure out better ways to deal with that. Some other problems that they might have is probably they are not too technical savy, so sometimes they might not be able to help the team on their technical solutions on how to direct their mindset into “Well, if we do it another way we can achieve the same goal but on a cheaper faster way to do it”. Another problem is that sometimes is that need that we want everything and one of the challenges that I usually have is to teach product owners to say no. It is really important for them to know how to hear the team talking about something and say “No, no, that is not what I want, I want just a piece of it, I don’t want this big one”.

Because usually they get excited “Oh, the team can do that, let them run with that” without understanding that that might have effect down the road that might affect the delivery of the whole thing down the road. Some other challenges that they have is also that the customer might change their mind about what they ask so just like developers get frustrated sometimes “Oh, the business changes requirements all the time”, customers change requirements all the time and as a product owner you have to continue to keep the open mind attitude into understanding “Ok, are we really going to do a U turn here with our dev team, or is there other ways we can deal with this?” We can continue being successful even with a small piece delivering something small for now and then looking back for more needs from customers. It’s not always easy to be a product owner.


8. So what comes next for you now?

Something else that I am doing in October is the SDEC conference in Winnipeg. I am really looking forward to that and the session that I am talking about there is a new one, it’s actually what I am doing right now at Canadian Tire, how to run an Agile project in an enterprise where the mindset is still waterfall. So I am going to bring there the experience that I had with my team, I am co-presenting with one of the people that led the Agile transformation at Canadian Tire so he is going to talk from the enterprise point of view and I am going to bring my experience on how did I take this transformation from the enterprise point of view into the team level, and what did I use and what did I do to get the project moving on and start delivering quick.