Solution Ownership
Posted on Jul 5th, 2022

Product owner is a mysterious role. There are many ways to define it but yet one question often remains unanswered: what is that they actually own?

Ownership of a product means ownership over its development and maintenance. The job is to facilitate efficient communication between various parties in the organisation, to streamline joint effort and to constantly improve the product for its final consumers.

I find it useful to think of the product development cycle in three phases: Problem, Solution and Implementation. In these terms, product owners are the solution owners that closely collaborate with the problem owners and the implementation owners.

Problem owners are the domain experts, those who understand the problem that needs to be solved really well and actively advocate for its solution. It can be members of your organisation or even super users of your product. One of the key responsibilities of a product owner is to work closely with problem owners to develop a deep understanding of the problem space. It is essential to understand the demand really well before taking ownership of supplying a solution for it.

Solution ownership is what defines the core of product ownership within the product development cycle. Ultimately it's about reframing a problem and shaping a solution for it. To shape a solution a product owner should conduct a reasonable research and identify all potential dependencies and risks. The solution must be defined on the right level of abstraction - it shouldn't go too much into details and it shouldn't be too high-level. I highly recommend the first chapters of Shape Up for more details on this.

Once a solution is ready it is crucial to successfully hand it over to the implementation team. Implementation owners are the engineers and designers responsible for implementing the change. There must be a clear transition of responsibility once they actually start implementing the solution. From that point it is the implementation team that owns the project till the end of the development cycle.

It is often the case that this transition is not strict - when a poorly defined solution gets into engineering with an idea that details can be figured out as things are being built. This is a big mistake that  leads to mutual blaming, confusion about ownership and huge delays. That's why it's a false economy to rush things into building without a well-defined solution - and there's certainly nothing "agile" about it.

As the ownership transfers from problem owners to solution owners and then to implementation owners during a single cycle every role is leveraging their skills and knowledge in the best possible way. Product owners as solution owners sitting in the middle of this process are ultimately responsible to ensure successful ownership transitions within the cycle.

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