Like any skilled occupation, having the right tools available can either make progress seem almost effortless or cause immense frustration. Knowledge work is no different and though the tools may often be digital, they are no less important in building a successful product. With any craft, preferred tools will vary based on personal preference and the situation you find yourself in, but the following ideas can be helpful as a product owner in large enterprises.
Anyone that has done a significant DIY remodeling project has felt the pain of misplacing a tool and having to pause whatever they’re doing to sift through construction debris, materials, or wander around the rest of the house looking for a tape measure. Keeping momentum while working requires a delicate balance of focus and environment; nothing can disrupt it faster than having to switch mental gears to a scavenger hunt. A simple solution is to use a tool bag to store key tools and build the habit of retuning them to the bag when not using them. Keeping everything organized and easily accessible not only allows work to move quickly but saves mental energy for the most complex tasks.
Using digital tools is no different. Not being able to find the right template or artifact when in the middle of working can break concentration, disrupt workflow, and be a distraction from the most important task at hand. Keeping a good system for digital tools and work products requires trial and error, and more than a little discipline, but can be a life raft when time is of the essence. It allows a product owner to move quickly by knowing exactly where the tool is. One key to success: find a single system and tweak it as needed. Trying out a few different systems of organization at the same time inevitably leads to issues that you were trying to avoid in the first place so stick to a single system and occasionally evaluate how well it’s working in the current situation.
Before discussing tools, it’s worth mentioning that the environment and workspace also play a big part in reducing overhead while working. There are plenty of other resources for creating and maintaining an efficient workspace. But just like when working on something physical, having a clean, distraction-free digital workspace contributes to the ability to focus while working.
One of the most valuable artifacts to create when joining a new group, domain, or company is documenting the people: with whom you’d interact, their relation to you and the team, and their roles/responsibilities. This usually is a simple drawing with nothing more than lines, names, and notes. Keep it easily accessible to add notes to or reference it when learning your way around. To make this even more valuable, it’s worth asking at least a couple of people who’ve been there a while and are well connected to describe or draw the organization and key players they think you should know.
Once you have a good picture of the organization and key players, mapping out each individual’s interest in the product and features vs. their influence will help build a model for your engagement or communications plan. Like all communication, knowing which stakeholders need to be informed, managed, appeased, and monitored is a critical part of a product owner’s role and should not be underestimated.
Product System & Environment Diagram
Sometimes a good system diagram is readily available, sometimes you may have to ask an engineer to draw it for you. Either way, have your technical lead or a senior engineer walk you through the systems that support your product and any teams or stakeholders that are responsible for those systems. Ideally there would be few and your product team could touch all necessary components for your product. But that’s often not the case in enterprise organizations, so you’ll need a map to help identify and communicate dependencies as you evaluate opportunities.
Reports & Analysis Tools
Understanding your product performance and being able to dig into data to uncover and answer questions about your customers, their behavior, segmentation, performance, etc., is essential. Even if your organization has a dedicated person or team to manage reports and analysis, always be curious and proficient at answering your own questions or backing up assumptions with data. This could range from manipulating data in Excel to using more sophisticated tools like Google Analytics, Adobe products, or Tableau.
Lean Business Case / Lean Canvas
Depending on the scope of the objective or problem you are trying to tackle, having a reusable template for crisply defining an opportunity and the relevant factors that should be assessed will help determine the value of pursuing it. Creating these takes thought and practice but it’s an essential skill for evaluating value and risk. Depending on your organization, it may also be helpful to create a product vision board or product charter document. While the Lean Business Case / Lean Canvas is usually a more formal document to communicate the opportunity assessment, a product vision board or charter can help flesh out some of the details such as division and enterprise goals, objectives and key performance indicators.
A persona is an effective way of communicating a representative group of user goals, pain points, background, and any other information that can simplify who will use a product or feature. This is especially valuable when communicating with designers or engineers that are working on solving problems. Ideally these would be created by someone in your enterprise that specializes in user research but, if they don’t exist, create them yourself and refine them over time.
Customer Journey Map
Mapping out the experience of interacting with your product from the customer point of view will help frame the most critical moments for a customer to find value in your product. Done well, these maps can help quickly identify areas for improvement within the broader context of your business, as well as keep your organization focused on the customer. This is another artifact that could be created by someone that specializes in this area but, if one doesn’t exist, it’s worth the time to go through the exercise of creating one.
User Story Map
Common criticism of working off a backlog is they can be one-dimensional and are difficult to visualize beyond the immediate work. A user story map gives your team the “big picture” while keeping the near-term problems in focus.
As a product owner in any flavor of Agile environment, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time creating and refining your team backlog. Whatever tool your organization is using is worth becoming very knowledgeable in to save time and frustration in the long run. Most digital backlog tools have the ability to create hierarchies, labels, filters, and reports. Use these to your advantage to stay organized and keep the most relevant items visible and easily accessible.
Roadmap / Objectives
Be it a feature roadmap, prioritized list of objectives, or high-integrity commitments, being able to communicate a vision for the product is critical to achieving momentum with your team and stakeholders. There are lots of opinions and ways you can create this but find something that works for your organization and make it an easily recognized artifact. It should be both simple as a communication tool but detailed enough to highlight the goals and outcomes that are being driven towards.
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Especially when introducing new concepts or problems with your team or stakeholders, being able to provide a visual can accelerate the conversation and allow for feedback more quickly than text alone. It doesn’t have to be anything sophisticated like Balsamic or Sketch; you can create visuals quickly in PowerPoint that allow a team to have a common working model to collaborate on and provide feedback.
Demos / Screenshots / Recordings
Whatever tools you use for demos, invest the extra time needed to master the medium. Being able to give a good demo is an essential skill for a product owner. Have a backup plan and an alternate way of presenting so that you don’t get stuck with nothing to share. And keeping additional screenshots, recordings, or other artifacts in an easily accessible place is useful when the situation doesn’t necessitate a demo.
Preferences for collaboration tools are as varied as the people using it. Find something that works for your team and stick to it. One of the lesser talked about roles of a product owner is information shepherd. Keeping people on the same page and moving in the same direction can be exhausting if you don’t have a self-sustaining process. But a collaboration tool can make an impact. Consistency counts for a lot in this case so reminding people where the information they need resides and encouraging a stable place for it will build trust.
Every product owner will have a variety of tools in their toolkit but the product owners that take the time to learn the nuances of each tool will make life easier on themselves and their team. Even more so in this new world of remote work, mastery of digital tools will have an outsized impact on your work and your enjoyment of your role.