Lessons from an Agile Product OwnerBy
The Agile project management methodology enables finance professionals to hone their leadership and organizational skills.
The accounting and finance profession is going through a major transformation as digital technologies continue to evolve, changing not only the type of work that we do, but also the way we deliver our work product. Now more than ever, management accountants need to understand how to navigate their evolving roles and responsibilities within a technology-dependent work environment and seek out opportunities to optimize the value-delivery process.
When working in a multifunctional team, consider leveraging the Agile project management methodology, which involves breaking up a project into several phases; constant collaboration; and a process of planning, executing, and evaluating geared toward a goal of continuous improvement. To improve your teams’ results, learn the new language of Agile, focus your efforts and attention where they matter most, and become a better communicator.
When I became the product owner for the Procter & Gamble (P&G) Source-to-Pay global platform, I wasn’t familiar with Agile, but I did have prior project management experience. The team was having some problems getting business involvement on its sprints—the Agile term for short, defined periods when a scrum team works to complete a task—and needed help to prioritize stories in the backlog grooming process. My thoughts at the time were, “What is a sprint?” and “Say again, what is it you’re grooming?”
Jokes aside, I’ve learned some valuable lessons as a product owner. It’s an amazing experience that enabled me to hone my leadership and organizational skills. Here are the most important pieces of advice that I can share with team leaders and managers:
1. Learn the language of Agile and each player’s position on the team. This was probably one of the biggest up-front time investments for me. Even after a few meetings, I wasn’t sure who on the team did what. I took time to learn more about Agile so that I understood new words related to how the work is organized such as epics, stories, and sprints. I also identified the various players—e.g., scrum masters—and their roles.
2. Contribute to the team’s success by being the link to the business. The product owner represents the business and the voice of the different stakeholders using the product. The IT Agile team I work with focuses on fast delivery of small tasks organized into sprints. That involves constantly producing new features and adjusting existing ones. The team needs interactive, timely business engagement even if the stories are well defined. While I’m very impressed with the team’s understanding of the process and our business strategy, I’m often consulted either to validate the design or share some real-life examples of how the process should work. I had to learn more about the product and articulate the upstream and downstream touchpoints and the effects of changes to the Agile team.
3. Invest heavily in the project-prioritization process. Backlog grooming is probably one of the areas to which I, as the product owner, was able to add the most value. The list of pending business enhancements is usually long and urgent. The team often struggled to determine how to prioritize the work and whether some items needed to be pushed back. To tackle this, I reviewed each story with the different stakeholders and helped them to articulate the real value of their request and rank the team’s priorities. I created simple criteria based on return on investment and risk remediation. We then sorted the projects with the highest impact and used it to plan future sprints. I also used this list to have an open, honest discussion with the business, requesting an enhancement of how their requests are prioritized and what to expect.
4. Communicate often and effectively. Keeping the business and users apprised, engaged, and prepared for changes is easy to overlook or mishandle. The product owner needs to work with the team to define a successful go-to-market approach. As sprints advance, it’s vital that adequate documentation, testing, and a user feedback mechanism are in place. For example, P&G recently introduced an automated invoice tax posting engine in Germany, Spain, and France. This change enabled the automatic posting of thousands of invoices and, if done properly, will improve tax compliance in these countries. With each sprint, we carefully orchestrated every step with the tax compliance, invoice posting, and accounts payable teams. We cautiously timed each sprint to minimize rework and eliminate the possibility of misses that could create a fiscal exposure.
5. Celebrate success and keep the team’s morale high. As the product owner, I meet regularly with the scrum master to review the list of stories we’ve delivered and the value we’ve added. This exercise will enable us to share results. I realized that Agile teams require high-intensity management and strong performance. The product owner can boost morale by making sure that the team understands the value of the work it’s delivering, how it fits in the bigger picture, and how to share results with the broader organization.
As some of you have already experienced, being a product owner is hard work that takes skill, time, and dedication. While it was scary at first, it has proven to be rewarding. You have a unique opportunity to make a more profound impact to business results and to continue to evolve your skills. A finance function using Agile can realize elevated outcomes, maximize value, and expedite delivery, enabling organizations to adapt to change quickly and glean data-backed insights.
I’m still very much on the Agile journey myself and encourage others to embrace it. The product owner role can add real value to the process, the business, and, importantly, to the professional development of the person playing that role.