DevOps and the Evolution of the Product Owner

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Embracing Agile Transformation

I probably don’t need to explain why organizations are shifting towards the agile way of working. In almost every industry, agility has evolved from an optional ambition to an inevitable necessity.

The widespread adoption of Scrum, the most prominent agile product development methodology, has led to the emergence of product owners. These individuals, acting as true business representatives, convey the voice of the customer and make constantly fluctuating priorities, guiding the development team towards the desired product. Many organizations view the transition from project thinking to product thinking as a major challenge in their pursuit of agility. However, this is the wrong battle. The focus should shift towards adopting a ‘service mindset,’ rather than merely a ‘product mindset.’

DevOps – A Strategic Advantage

The DevOps movement has gained traction for a reason. Organizations striving for agility have come face-to-face with the limitations of agile thinking being confined to software development. Potentially shippable products pile up at operations’ doorstep, resulting in long cycle times, dissatisfied customers, frustrated IT staff, and unhappy prospects. Not limited to startups and small companies, even large enterprises have recently started embracing DevOps practices and competencies. Organizations that have successfully adopted this new way of working have become magnets for highly skilled and innovative IT professionals. A DevOps culture has now become a strategic asset.

DevOps Practices

In addition to DevOps-specific technologies, behaviors, and governance, embracing the DevOps philosophy also necessitates a different approach to ownership. A DevOps mindset involves considering non-functional requirements as much as functional needs. As IT becomes an integral part of the business, rather than simply a technology provider, organizations transition from a product-dominant logic to a service-dominant logic. This transformation is evident, for instance, in the banking sector, where traditional financial products have evolved into mobile payment services and investment platforms. With service-dominant logic, more and more organizations rely on intangible resources and relationships to co-create value. A prime example is KLM, the Dutch airline, actively leveraging social media to co-create value with and for their customers.

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Going Beyond ‘Product’

In a service-dominant world, does it make logical sense to restrict ownership at the product level? Service owners are far more effective in this regard. Service owners not only prioritize customer experience and end-to-end efficiency but also focus on the entire service lifecycle, maintainability, and all other aspects that determine overall value delivery. This results in “definitions of use” rather than “definitions of medium rare,” where the end result is truly usable, rather than just partially completed. Too often, I come across scrum implementations that produce potentially shippable increments that deliver no value whatsoever. A service owner is responsible not only for the realization of an end result (e.g., a car) but also for its effective usage (e.g., driving). This entails a broader scope than the product alone.

Service Ownership

Moving from product owners to service owners is not merely a semantic issue. I understand the true purpose of the product owner role: to be value-driven. I also acknowledge that poor service owners are just as detrimental as inadequate product owners. However, to foster an end-to-end collaborative mindset throughout your organization, it is highly advisable to undergo a fundamental shift in thinking and operating in terms of services, rather than products.

Introducing the Operations Expert

In my experience, a significant first step towards this transformation is introducing an operations expert in all your agile teams. This team member assists the product owner in identifying functional and non-functional priorities, contributes operational knowledge and capabilities to the team (e.g., monitoring, logging), and gradually instills a service mindset within the entire team. This is only an initial stride towards embracing a DevOps philosophy and cultivating ownership of end-to-end services within your organization. However, once you succeed in this endeavor, the rest of the DevOps journey will be a piece of cake.

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