Most organisations have in recent times undertaken significant self-reflection, analysis and in some cases external validation to define a new ‘way of working’ aimed at delivering a better customer and employee experience and improved business performance. This change varies from subtle tweaks to product development practices through to significant business re-organisations – brave, ambitious programs that have delivered varying levels of success.
The changes in the ‘ways of working’ have invariably preferenced more visibly accountable methods for delivering and operationalising change, which in turn enables critical flexibility to manage priorities, focus on valuable delivery and positively impact efficiency. These methods require and depend on greater localised, individual accountability and value the efficiency gain from the dilution of large scale command and control structures. Organisations that are seeking this kind of model have typically initiated a transition of accountability to a “product ownership” model, structured to align with core organisational capabilities. This transition has been evolving across internal capabilities (BAU systems and platforms), customer-facing products and services and internal centres of excellence.
This change has significant potential to enable competitive advantage to organisations who leverage this model effectively. However, when not implemented well, it can cause a disconnect between strategy and delivery of change and have lasting effects on organisational performance. Effective implementation of the “product ownership” model relies on 3 key elements.
Integration of product planning with strategic planning through regular (quarterly) alignment is crucial in ensuring the desire for the product remains aligned to the organisational strategy and the delivery of shareholder and community value. Integral to this mapping is the coordination and alignment with other products and capability to enable the right level of synergy, leverage, overlap and proximity. Without an agreed process for aligning product and capability across the organisation, this model will fail.
You will notice that although the word has been avoided, the process described above is a governance process. However, the inherent message is that this works when the desire to align is pulled by the product ownership level in preference to it be driven by a command and control, funding aligned approach.
Product or capability delivery becomes effective when the ownership model requires the owner to be intimately involved in the day to day development, delivery and operation and when the team who develop the product or capability are also responsible for the performance once in operation. This often means a move to cross-functional teams who are able to deliver and operate an outcome with minimal handoffs and maximum delivery efficiency and quality control.
The establishment of genuinely cross-functional teams has proven to be tricky for some organisations. The people in the team need to depend on each other. Trust and respect for each other is paramount as is the leadership skill of the team lead. Unlike traditional Practice or Centres of Excellence Leads, the Cross-Functional Team Lead must have an appreciation for multiple disciplines and be able to lead and facilitate the team to not only achieve maximum delivery velocity but remain focused on delivering the highest value items – not just the easiest – first.
This doesn’t mean we necessarily get rid of Centres of Excellence. In fact, in anything, their value increases when people of similar skillsets are dispersed across the organisation. There is still – possibly even greater – need to align people on practices, approach and standards in order to deliver in a consistent fashion across the organisation. There also exists the opportunity to share broader learnings and thus ensure continuous improvement over time.
The product ownership model, the cross-functional teams model and contemporary ways of working are highly dependent on information. What is it, how big is it, how will it be built, how will it be released, what value will it have, are all questions that need to be answered with information. Typically, this is information that is fast-moving, subject to change and relied on by the team. Cross-functional teams become productive when the information they rely upon is available in real-time and is trusted. Strong engagement of the team with the information will give insights to further questions such as how fast are we moving, what value are we delivering, what is blocked, what areas need help to speed up.
Vertical alignment of information from delivery teams through product and capability lines, through business service lines to strategy, becomes important in this model. It helps alignment of products or capabilities that depend on each other, touch similar markets or have technical or service proximity.
The importance of managing to deliver information digitally has become even more critical in the current environment of Covid-19, with many teams working from home and no longer able to rely on face to face contact.
The “product owner” model can deliver organisations a significant competitive advantage in speed to market, focussed valued creation and delivery and adaptability. However, this model requires careful orchestration of people, process and information to enable efficiency and effectiveness and the promised competitive advantage.