Two years ago, earning my PSPO certification from scrum.org awakened in me a desire to better understand, communicate and advocate for the Product Owner role. The course, certification and subsequent work with Product Owners stirred an enigmatic connection with this role. Then a few weeks ago, while traveling to North Carolina for my grandmother’s 100th birthday party, it hit me: my first Product Owner was my mom.
No wonder I had strong feelings and was passionate about this role. As my first Product Owner, my mom set a high standard for all future POs! While I didn’t know it then, I know it now: to be an excellent and effective Product Owner requires vision, discipline, steadfastness, attention, and nurturing— all qualities embodied by my mother, then and now.
My mom had vision
My mom had a vision for what she wanted me to become. Like all good Product Owners, she knew what she wanted to create and why she wanted it; she wanted to raise a strong, independent, imaginative and thoughtful daughter who would contribute to the world. Why? Because she loved and believed in me.
She diligently worked with other stakeholders (other family members; school, ballet, and piano teachers; and others) to learn what mattered to them. She continually brought that feedback to me in an age-appropriate manner and tone, filtering or softening feedback that could be perceived as hurtful to a young, impressionable girl, without straying from the truth.
My mom’s ability to meld this stakeholder feedback with her ultimate vision provided safety—especially during those awkward years for a skinny, freckled, serious and sensitive little girl—and allowed my first Product Owner to nurture me out of my shell. She knew her tender, introverted bookworm and dreamer perceived far more than her years belied, and would need a steady, safe space in which to experiment and grow.
While there were many ‘features’ on her Product Backlog, two vastly different—and seemingly simple ones—specifically shaped who I’ve become: Learning to get dressed and learning to clean.
She showed me ‘what’ she wanted me to do
Mom wanted me to dress and be able to take care of myself. At a young age, she let me pick out my school clothes each night. Like a good Product Owner, she knew that stifling my creativity would prevent me from learning – and evolving – my style over time. It was quite funny at times, especially as a child of the early ‘70s, and yet Mom let my spirit shine through, rarely dampening my experiments with various patterns and colors.
She also wanted me to know how to clean. She taught me how to vacuum, do dishes, wash laundry—all the basics of keeping a clean and tidy home, that were appropriate for a 5-, 8-, or 12-year old. Here again, my mom let me experiment in how to get this work done, and each time I vacuumed more uniformly, washed the dishes more thoroughly, and folded the T-shirts more evenly than before.
Good Product Owners share with Development Teams what they want and need, and work to clarify requirements, design parameters and business value. Through the Retrospective process, both the PO and Dev Team get better at working together and delivering more value each time, like mom did for me.
She helped me understand ‘why’ she wanted me to do it
My mom knew that if I were able to successfully make small decisions repeatedly about what to wear, as I grew, I’d have the confidence and history of making hundreds of small decisions upon which to rely. Later, I would use that data as the foundation for making bigger and better decisions beyond what clothes to wear, thereby fulfilling her ultimate ‘why’: the ability to make good decisions.
While developing my personal style was about experimentation, she taught me that cleaning was about the Big Rocks. For example, if expecting company, sweep and vacuum the floors, clean the toilets, wipe down the counters and set the table. After all, company is less likely to see (or care about) the little things like dust. But clean toilets matter! In this case, her ‘why’ related to developing my strategic thinking capabilities.
Product Owners with a clear ‘why’ empower and compel teams to want to fulfill that vision. They draw and attract teams to a higher calling when the going gets tough mid-Sprint and remind Dev Team members of the product’s central purpose.
She gave me the guardrails of when she needed it by
She provided a clear sense of when a completed chore is ‘good enough’ and to move on—and making the bed was one of those. She didn’t expect much time to be spent on that task but did insist it be done daily. Pull up the covers and straighten them, tuck your pajamas under the pillow and place any throw pillows back on the bed. Similarly, thoughtful Product Owners help Dev Teams succeed by pulling them out of the perfectionist track and giving them the ‘good enough’ guardrails through clear Definition of Done and Acceptance Criteria.
She left me alone
My mom wanted me to be self-sufficient. She encouraged me to form my own ideas and to choose my own ‘path less traveled.’ And she understood that if that were to happen, she’d need to leave me alone—metaphorically, not literally. She gave me ample ‘contemplating bellybuttons’ time, as she called it, during which I noodled on creative ways to solve a problem, make something unique, or digest a piece of music thoroughly. I didn’t have to outwardly be ‘doing something’ to be doing something meaningful or productive.
Thinking—and thinking deeply—was enough, and she let me alone to do it. And in that, she gave me a precious gift: the ability to strike a good balance of thinking and action.
Insightful Product Owners also know how important it is to carve out thinking time. Development Teams have big, complex problems to solve, and that takes brain power. Confident POs realize that teams need to be left alone during that Sprint container, and that a good part of the work is quiet contemplation, noodling, drawing on the white board or keyboard, and internally putting the disparate parts together. Having been left alone for that contemplation, Dev Team members can then take the right action to validate their thoughts and ideas.
She was open to new ideas
Mom embraced my creative and inventive thinking. At the age of 5, as I walked home from Kindergarten and through the back patio sliding door, I would hold out my seemingly empty, cupped hands to show her how the leprechauns and fairies accompanied me home. She gladly indulged my make-believe journey and wanted to know the details: what were the fairies wearing and what color were they? How big were the leprechauns, and did they have a pot of gold? On and on, she’d ask for details, and I’d give them.
What she may not have known then, is that by encouraging exploration of the unknown, and asking for details, she was building my creative muscles that would serve me well as an adult faced with solving complex problems. Similarly, supportive Product Owners build trust by encouraging their Development Teams to bring creative thoughts to the fore, thereby strengthening their interdependent and symbiotic relationship.
She embraced fear of the unknown
My mom raised me to be courageous. She taught me to feel the fear and do it anyway. Whether it was auditioning for the part of Clara in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (I didn’t get it) or the lead in the school play (I did get it), or the hundreds of other leaps made into the empty sky, she encouraged me to just take that first step—and then the next one. And before I knew it, I had embraced and moved through the fear.
When I whined and said, “But Mom, I don’t know how to do that!” she’d retort, “That’s OK. Go figure it out. What do you think is the first step?” And so the dialogue and coaching ensued, with “what’s next?” and “what about this?” The inherent message was “Just take that first step, Christy. Soon you’ll know which way to go.” This emboldened and strengthened my decision-making capability, and ultimately ended with her claiming, ‘See, you figured it out.’
Product Owners who embrace the fear of the unknown, who let go of the ‘how’ and trust their Dev Teams to do the work, find that their ideas are masterfully created in ways previously unimagined. I encourage Product Owners to release their fear, thereby freeing the Dev Teams to exceed their expectations.
She inspected the quality of my work
My mom often checked in on me with a quick, “How’s it going, Christy?” However, she never checked up to see if I were doing the work. If I ever paused or stopped doing the work, she’d always ask, “Hey, what’s going on?” and let me share why I’d stopped or the cause of my distraction instead of asking, “Hey, why aren’t you vacuuming?!” When it wasn’t what she expected, she shared that feedback and then together we identified ways it could be better next time.
I learned that she trusted me. And that I made really good decisions. Not every time, but that was OK, too, as we’d come together and talk through what went wrong. What could I do differently next time? What did I need to learn in that experience, so that I wouldn’t repeat the mistake? Regardless of the outcome, together we kept going—me figuring out my how, her guiding my what and why—and we bonded over our common goal: my transformation into who I am still becoming.
Perhaps mothers are Product Owners without knowing it. I know that I’m forever indebted to my mom, my first Product Owner, and have become who I am due to the initial vision, diligence, care, and nurturing she applied while bringing me to life.