Collaborative product ownership meets reality – Part 3 of 3

A sure way to improve your product is to involve the whole team in product ownership. In the second part of this three part series we have laid out the theoretical benefits of collaborative product ownership. This third and final part focuses on practical steps you can take to accomplish shared ownership in your daily work life.

Read the other parts of this series here:

Stages to collaborative product ownership

How exactly you can embrace a more collaborative way of product ownership depends heavily on which stage you are currently at. The following section outline three main states of product ownership and give you some guiding questions to pinpoint which stage you are in. Finally each part contains a few ideas to experiment and improve.

Project management, not product ownership

This is a very common state but rarely recognised as such. Your team might receive requests and tasks from a business role or technical manager. They might even have the title of a product owner. Or your work is one step of a long pipeline – one team pushes work to your team and when you are done you push the work along to the next team.

What’s important here is how the work is poured into the team. If you can answer some of the following questions with a clear yes then you are probably in this stage:

  • Are you confronted with the What and How but nobody explains the Why?
  • Is the work pushed into your team – thrown over the wall – and somebody else is waiting on the other end for the output?
  • Do you feel like a code monkey or factory worker rather than a creative knowledge worker?
  • Have you got no idea who your customers are?
  • You are not working on a product but on a component instead?

What defines this stage is that there is no tangible connection from the team to the customer or high level business goals. The team is seen as a factory unit: Ticket in, code out. At this stage teams usually obsess over the little aspect they might still have control over such as code quality or database schemas.

How to advance from project management to product ownership?

If you are in this either as a manager or team member you might blame the circumstances. it’s the organisation, I can’t change this on my own. But luckily that’s nonsense. You and everyone else can trigger change and improve the situation.

Don’t fight an argument from principle. Instead deliver what is asked of you in a novel, better way. Delivering results does hardly ever get criticised. It is a core value of agile to deliver in small increments after all. Here is some inspiration to introduce change:

  • Create a release forecast with the data available to you. You could use a #noEstimates approach. Everyone loves more accurate release forecasts!
  • Visualise your work on a Kanban board. If you can’t officially change the process, establish a “secret” WIP limit for yourself. This will help you identify bottlenecks and potential improvements.
  • Ask better questions. You do not need an official definition of done. In your meetings simply ask questions based on the INVEST principle. This will help you pinpoint unprepared tasks, uncover dependencies and issues with testing and effort.
  • Practice introspection. Try to hold short retrospectives by asking yourself or others how you can improve a given situation by just 10%. This helps to escape the all too common blame fest. Don’t ask “what’s wrong?” (it’s always the others) but ask “what can I do to improve the situation just a little?“. 1% a day makes you 37x better in a year.

Once your actions inspire a better way of working you gain trust. And with trust comes more autonomy. Remember that it does not take an official title as product owner to develop ownership.

Authorative product ownership

In the next stage your team has an established product owner. This person takes the prioritisation and customer centeredness serious and sets the direction of the product. They are the voice to represent customers, stakeholders and business interests.

To assess whether you are in the second stage of product ownership answer the following questions for yourself:

  • Is the product owner in direct contact with customers and stakeholders but the team is not?
  • Does the product owner share the Why together with the What but leave the How to the team?
  • Does the product owner shield the team from interference with their work priorities?

Many teams operate successfully in this modus. However, there are some not so obvious issues with this way of product ownership. We have covered them in detail in the first part of this series.

Always go the pace of the team

As a product owner your job turns into a facilitator to enable the team to take ownership. Initiatives which builds the team’s knowledge to make better decisions are your goal:

  • Write stories collaboratively with the “Three Amigos” approach.
  • Use Objectives and Key Results to create motivating objectives and clear, measurable targets.
  • Establish direct communication between customers, stakeholders and the team. Redirect their requests to a mailing list or shared Slack channel which can be accessed by the team at any time.
  • Invite stakeholders and customers to sprint reviews. This is a neat feedback loop for you and the team and highlights the human aspect of work.
  • Invite team members to customer interviews.
  • Invite stakeholders to your story refinements.
  • Create personas for your customers. Use the personas to pinpoint who you’re building your features for and what value you are delivering to them.
  • Water cooler customer interviews

Collaborative product ownership

Once product ownership in your team has made the leap from authorative to collaborative you are just at the start of your next journey. Maintaining and improving collaboration is ongoing work. It needs to be held up during changing market environments, organisational changes or the departure of team members. You can use the following questions to see if you find some room for improvements still.

  • Is the whole team in contact with stakeholders and customers?
  • Does everyone know the Why of your work?
  • Do you regularly question the Why, What and How of your work?
  • Is everyone talking during your meetings?
  • Do you adapt quickly to changing demands?
  • Are team members growing outside of their core expertise (like communication and business skills)?
Image from FCIT

Ideas for continuous improvement

Even if you are experiencing the full range of benefits of collaborative product ownership maybe this will give you some inspiration to up the game even further:

  • Round-robin meeting chairing: Why don’t you start documenting your process like Gitlab? Start with writing a playbook for meetings like sprint plannings, refinements or reviews and then do a round-robin meeting chairing.
  • Open agendas: Encourage everyone to bring stories and ideas to the refinements. By opening up the agenda for the meetings you might first encounter a few awkward situations where nobody prepared anything. After a while people might open up and seize the opportunity to fill that void with their own ideas.
  • Prioritise together with your stakeholders: Why don’t you hold a Buy a feature session with your team, customers and stakeholders? This is a great way to get those different parties in the same room talking with each other.
  • Find out what really drives your team mates: Play a game of moving motivators to find different motivation factors within your team. This builds trust and understanding, fundamentals of highly effective teams.
  • Outcomes over output: Change your success metrics from output (story points burned) to outcomes (KPIs). Celebrating outcomes gives a sense of end to end ownership and creativity to think in solutions outside their core domain.

If this is not enough have a look into some Management 3.0 techniques and read up on servant leadership or modern agile. Or push into higher spheres and try to establish that same level of transparency and collaboration in the whole organisation with portfolio kanban or flight levels.


There is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution to collaborative product ownership. Experiment and discover what works for your team and organisation. Go the pace of the team and introduce one piece of the puzzle at a time. If you meet resistance don’t use force. Instead try to create mutual understanding. Keep an eye on your personal role in this: Act as a facilitator and influencer, not a manager or leader. The last thing you want is to replace one hierarchical, bottlenecked process for another. And most of all: Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses from time to time.