Challenges of a product owner in a service company

In the ever-evolving landscape of IT service companies, a shift toward IT outsourcing has changed the way businesses use external expertise. This includes tapping into specialized talent pools for specific processes or tasks. While that was traditionally focused on software development, the rise of Agile and Scrum methodologies highlights the crucial role of product owners […]

by Thuan Do

August 25, 2023

6 min read

product owner working on a project scaled 1 - Challenges of a product owner in a service company

In the ever-evolving landscape of IT service companies, a shift toward IT outsourcing has changed the way businesses use external expertise. This includes tapping into specialized talent pools for specific processes or tasks. While that was traditionally focused on software development, the rise of Agile and Scrum methodologies highlights the crucial role of product owners in product development.

However, bringing valuable insight to a product as an external expert remains a challenge. Successful product owners need a combination of interpersonal skills and technical expertise. In this post, I’m going to talk about the most common challenges faced by product owners in IT service companies and offer ways to overcome them. 

When is a product owner needed?

When creating a digital product, the most important thing is to have a development team to turn an idea into а tangible product. Beyond that, once the product has been created, it starts evolving – it undergoes changes, gets more features and requires customization. 

That’s when companies realize the need for a Product Owner. At that stage, a product strategy can help the product grow by identifying customer needs and market trends, and coming up with new creative solutions to better position the product in the competitive market.

What is a product owner?

You might wonder if a product owner’s role is the same in a service company and a product one. The two are pretty much the same. The person in such a role needs to be able to respond quickly to client feedback and demands. Additionally, a PO should always be on top of the product’s roadmap, capable of prioritizing tasks accordingly. 

This can be challenging, as client and stakeholder feedback can often be unpredictable and everchanging. Moreover, clients may not be aware of the product’s full scope and capabilities, leading to misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations. That’s when a good product owner needs to be able to step in and ask the right questions to shape the feature. 

The struggles of a product owner in a service company

If you’ve read this far, you might be asking yourself the next logical question. What does a PO in a service/outsourcing company struggle with? 

As we said above, for a product owner to succeed, they need the stakeholders’ trust. When a company hires a PO from their outsourcing partner, that person usually has less trust to begin with. They need to build it and establish relationships – on top of gaining the domain knowledge necessary when working on a new project. 

Beyond that, sometimes a company won’t give its PO full visibility over the pipeline or limit their access to management and customers, preventing them from getting to know the product. Such a product owner serves more as a proxy and has very visibility of upcoming features. That makes it much more difficult to make strategic decisions and can unnecessarily extend the work’s duration. 

Last but not least, the dynamic role of a product owner requires a delicate balancing act between senior stakeholders from the two companies involved. This demands an unwavering alignment between the interests and objectives of both parties – a task that can prove to be both demanding and energy-draining. 

Overcoming the challenge 

At this point, you’re probably thinking “This person doesn’t sound like an actual PO. What can you do under these circumstances?” 

There are several ways to handle this scenario. In this blog post, I’ve outlined the steps I believe to be most effective – if they don’t seem right for you, there are many more options out there.

“Bring your own chair”

Last year at the Product-Led conference in London, Charity Ibhadon delivered a captivating presentation that left a lasting impression. She shared a powerful message centred around the idea: “If you are not given a seat at the table, bring a chair.” 

But what does this mean in practice? Essentially, it urges us to proactively position ourselves even when not formally invited, albeit in a respectful and non-intrusive manner. Taking the initiative to make our presence felt in meetings where crucial discussions are underway is critical.

Charity’s invaluable insights on this subject included a series of steps and hints to navigate such situations successfully:

  1. Forge connections and identify allies, offering them a listening ear for venting.
  2. Focus on making yourself known to others and, importantly, to yourself.
  3. Volunteer your contributions up to a certain extent, demonstrating your capabilities.
  4. Find your voice in places where silence typically prevails, speaking up when warranted.
  5. Ensure you’re included in important discussions, seeking opportunities to participate actively.
  6. Test your ideas with trusted allies before presenting them more broadly.
  7. Cultivate self-awareness and clarify your aspirations, knowing precisely what you want to achieve.

Of all these hints, the first one stands out as especially vital. Building relationships and understanding people’s positions and goals within the company can transform them into valuable allies. Engaging with them also allows you to validate your ideas and gather feedback.

In essence, Charity’s advice serves as a guiding light for those aiming to break barriers and assert their influence in professional settings. Embrace the wisdom shared, and remember that bringing your metaphorical folding chair to the table can lead to remarkable opportunities and impactful contributions in your PO role.

Don’t be afraid to speak up 

Unlocking the true potential of a product owner role entails a steadfast commitment to grasping the essence of both the problem at hand and the product under development. Remember, being an outsourced PO doesn’t mean blindly saying yes to everything; rather, it presents an opportunity to deliver value by raising objections and proactively proposing innovative solutions.

Embrace the art of constructive challenge – question the problem, scrutinize the proposed solutions, and foster an environment that encourages critical thinking. Your voice matters, and transparency becomes your ally. If challenges impede timely delivery, don’t hesitate to communicate openly and highlight the obstacles faced. By doing so, you pave the way for collaborative problem-solving and instill confidence in your ability to navigate hurdles.

Moreover, a proactive approach to providing constructive feedback on process improvements is a powerful asset. By offering insights into what works and what doesn’t, you become an invaluable asset to the company, appreciated for the unique and indispensable value you bring to the table as a product owner.

Pursuit of improvement 

A relentless pursuit of process improvement and deepening product knowledge remains pivotal in the journey towards professional growth and excellence as a product owner. Embrace a proactive approach by actively seeking feedback from stakeholders from both companies involved. Avoid falling into the trap of assumption; instead, invest effort in validating your ideas before presenting them for consideration. While this might demand additional time and effort, the dividends it reaps in the long run are truly rewarding.

Furthermore, fostering a receptive mindset towards constructive criticism and feedback proves instrumental. Instead of resorting to excuses, make a conscious effort to glean as much valuable information as possible from the feedback received. Embracing this open attitude not only enhances personal growth but also paves the way for collective success, as continuous improvement and an openness to learning remain the hallmarks of a thriving product owner.

Wrap Up

These are just a few of the challenges that a product owner in a service company may face. While these situations can be daunting, it is important to remember that the role of the product owner is essential in ensuring that the product meets the needs of the customer. With careful planning and effective stakeholder management, the product owner can ensure success for the product and the company. To wrap up, here is a bit of food for thought which might be a topic for another blog. Why do you think a company should outsource a PO?