The Five Belts Of The Product Owner

20 Sep, 2016
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What is your level?

What is your level?

One of the cool things that Europeans added to Judo is the belt system. Japanese are patient by nature, they either do or don’t. In fact, they distinguish only the black belt, you either have it or are progressing towards it. We need a bit more guidance to know we are on the right way, hence we have the different belts (which actually originate from the game of pool.) So what are five distinct levels of Product Ownership that we can observe and what must change before we move on to the next level?

Product Owner Level 1 | White Belt

A black belt is a just a white belt that didn’t quit” – Unknown

White belts usually start young. They have little proficiency in the role of the Product Owner and often lack knowledge of the principles of Scrum or Agile and the underlying values. They were simply promoted in this role. There is no shame in this, we all started as a white belt and in most organizations, a transition to Agile is a journey that takes multiple years to come to the fullest effect.

Symptoms: you are a white belt if the management defines your product’s goal and/or vision and strongly influences the Product Backlog. The Product Owner merely executes and translates the business requirements into tech speak, it is not surprising to find traditional business analysts here. Great skills can be learned here by working close to the team and learning to specify what you want in a way that the teams understand and translate into value for the business but a Product Owner can grow into more than that.

Product Owner level 2 | Yellow Belt

Inevitably the Product Owner will learn more about the business and gain more insight into what it is they are building and why. At the same time, training or just experience has to lead to a more fundamental understanding of the pillars on which Scrum is founded such as empiricism. Because the Product Owner is more aware of his or her environment opportunities for different implementations become more obvious. Interestingly enough this is analog to Judo where the yellow indicates a larger set of solutions but also awareness of when to apply what.

Symptoms: you are a yellow band when you gain control of what is in the Product Backlog. You manage the stakeholders and translate the vision of the Product to Product Backlog items. We seek harmonization with management about it, since without it we would be reverted to the previous level.
Transparency and the proper use of Inspect and Adapt in the development process will cement your position on this level.

Product Owner Level 3 | Green Belt

Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort” – JigorŠ KanŠ (founder of Judo)

Green belt is a different ballgame (Judo experts realize I skipped orange.) It is no longer about technique; it is about what works. It’s about fluency and effectiveness. At these levels outcome becomes dominant over output, you are ready to face management in the ever-recurring debate about efficiency vs. effectiveness. Traditionally this was the realm of the Product Manager. Product Management is responsible for bridging what the market needs, the technology can deliver and the constraints of the organization. This is what Scrum calls the Product Owner. This implies however that the Product Owner knows what the market needs and that means he needs to be out there talking to users, buyers, and the eco-system of the Product and that is seriously time-consuming. It is therefore that this level cannot just be achieved by your own skill set (which definably needs to evolve since the previous level) but also relies on the organizational maturity. They will have to deal with you being less around, which is great! It means that the team and the environment have enough domain knowledge to build stuff without you needing to go through all de details or needing to defend to internal stakeholders.

Symptoms: Determining the product goal has become a shared responsibility of the Product Owner and management. The management is not involved in the backlog or daily activities, but rather paves the way for the Product to prosper and grow. Not all organizations achieve this level, a sub-optimal solution is to split the market (outside) and development (inside) roles but be aware that a lot is lost in translation. In some situations, it can lead to an ivory tower of Product Management and a development department that has lost touch with the problem they are solving in favor of efficiency.

Achieving next levels is something to be exceptionally proud of

Achieving the next level is something to be exceptionally proud of

Product Owner Level 4 | Blue Belt

Wait there is more! Increased knowledge of the market leads to a deeper insight into what additional problems customers are facing. The popular pivot from the Lean Startup is not something one does out of a whim, but only after careful consideration of discoveries and insights that are found by having that in-depth connection with the market. In my book "The Product Samurai" I describe various approaches you can follow to learn about the unmet needs of users. Each of them provides an opportunity to grow the product. Blue is where you start taking the lead and the rest follows, there is no difference between Judo and business.

Symptoms: The Product Owner proposes proactive targets for the Product and seeks harmonization with management. The decisiveness of Product Owner rises. Or as the old saying goes: "act first, ask forgiveness later". Caveat: as with Judo, you will fail eventually. Or better said: you will either win or learn. This, however, requires the environment to have adopted a failing-is-ok culture. This is a huge cultural shift, it doesn’t mean you can just fail all the time but it means the company takes a more analytical approach to failure (and success too!) rather than praising only success. As with Judo matches, losing does not directly mean you are not skillful, rather the other was more skillful than you (or got lucky.)

Product Owner Level 5 | Black Belt

Startups are very, very popular and we see more and more enterprises embracing a startup mindset. These enterprises are blessed with a scale, resourcing and brand startups can only dream of. In fact, in many ways, an intrapreneur has better chances of succeeding than an entrepreneur outside a large enterprise. What is needed are people that run their Product as a startup. Black belts are the equivalent of a startup inside an enterprise. Management behaves more like a VC, hedging multiple bets, challenging and coaching the Product Owners. The runway is expressed in budget or patience if the Product does not take off at the end of the runway, it is systematically killed to give way to new endeavors.

Symptoms: The Product Owner has an unclouded vision, and he or she can see beyond the current product goal. Becomes a Problem Owner by discovering problems in the market and creating products to solve these problems. The Product Owner anticipates where necessary, we still seek consultation with management but are firmly in position. The Product Owner takes calculated risks, realizes ‘fail fast’ and activates the environment. No one said it would be easy, but the Product Owner role is the best role in the Scrum process, let’s make the most of it!

Want to learn more about agility, martial arts, and product management? Go order the book from if you are in the Netherlands or Belgium or sign up to get the international edition.
The Product Manager's guide to Continuous Innovation


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