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Experimenting with #NoProductOwner at F-Secure

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Maaret Pyhäjärvi, software development manager at F-Secure, reported at Agile India 2019 that working without a product owner increased a team’s performance and the flow of value to the customers. The current belief, based on accepted practices and standards, is that having a product owner will maintain and increase value to the customers. Pyhäjärvi challenged this belief, and set up experiments with one team to test whether a product owner truly drives value to the team, product, and organization. In the spirit of continuous improvements, which is at the heart of agile, other practitioners introduced similar changes, such as working with no estimates or moving away from projects.

Pyhäjärvi set up a 3-month experiment with the hypothesis that customer-obsessed teams of developers working and interacting directly with their end-users perform better than if they had a proxy liaising between them and the customers. 21 days into the experiment, the team received feedback from customers that their demo was particularly good, and focused on value for the customer. Because the feedback came directly from the business, it had a more meaningful impact on the team who shifted their approach to be more customer-centric. 65 days into the experiment, the team had not seen the product owner or product manager in 55 days. They realized that formal organizational structures were not instrumental in meeting customers’ expectations, and they started developing informal communication and feedback channels with their customers that contributed to delivering greater results.

The experiment at F-Secure culminated in many positive outcomes: the team developed a cross-team ownership of the challenges and customer-facing documentation that increased their ability to solve problems. According to Pyhäjärvi, they identified and delivered solutions faster, improved the flow of value, and drove greater innovation as they anticipated features that were not asked or expected by the business. Due to the absence of a product owner on the team, they introduced ways of measuring product fit for purpose and adoption through positive and negative telemetry, creating reliable feedback mechanisms. The team progressively adopted new core behavioral and data-driven practices, such as accountability and a bias for action, closer relationship and open communication with customer and data-informed decisions.

After a full year of operating without a product owner, the team was recognized as the best team in R&D. According to Pyhäjärvi, this unique experiment within F-Secure is not enough proof that this approach to product development results in greater customer experience, and she reminded the audience that improvements are possible if organizations and teams consider changing the way they approach work and old paradigms.

This real-world experiment supports Mary Poppendiek (2011) and Joshua Kerievsky (2016) theories according to which teams that operate without product owners become more customer obsessed.

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