What is a Decision Maker?

Decision Maker, which helps the stakeholders and Scrum Team to keep time-to-market short, by keeping decision-making time short. All sorts of decisions have to made on a daily basis. Some can be delegated to the Scrum Team or stakeholders, some the Product Owner has to take him-/herself.

The “act of deciding” is a term coined in the mid 15th century and from the Latin word Decisionem:

Decisionem (nominative decisio) “to decide, determine,” literally “to cut off”. — Etymonline.com, October 2019 —

Making decisions is about “cutting off” choices — cutting you off from some other course of action. It may sound limiting, but it’s not. It’s liberating. Creating products presents us with endless options and possibilities; but at some point, we need to make some decisions.

The Decisive Product Owner and Agile

Looking at the Agile Manifesto principles, being a Decision Maker is pretty important in Agile teams it seems, since one of the Agile Manifesto principles is all about decision making:

10. “Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.”

Looking at other sources, such as the book The Professional Product Owner or the contents of a Professional Scrum Product Owner training, Product Owners do have a great deal to do with decision making.

They have to decide what items to add to the Product Backlog, what items to remove from it, how to order the Product Backlog in order to maximize the products’ value… They have to make decisions about the Product Vision and Strategy. They have to decide when to release the Product Increment to the market, etc. etc. One could say that the decisive Product Owner is driven by data that helps to create a model of the past and a forecast of possible outcomes. On the other hand, the decisive Product Owner decides after a discussion with relevant stakeholders and/or the Development Team. The Product Owner favors decisions where everyone is on board but can take the tough calls when needed. All in all there are tons of decisions to be made by a Product Owner, and then we haven’t even spoken about what decisions to take yourself and what decisions to delegate to the stakeholders or Development Team!

From a Product Management, Agile and a Professional Scrum perspective, we can only say that taking the Decision Maker stance regularly is key to being a successful Product Owner. The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product after all and how can you possibly maximize the value of the product if you’re not making clear decisions about what to do, and what not to do right?

What great Decision Makers do

Listen, it seems like a very open door, and it is, but great decision-makers make sure the other party feels heard and understood.

“You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio.”
— The Product Samurai’s Mum

Next time someone voices concerns over a decision try to keep track if you: (a) negate their concern: “that’s not happening.” (b) minimize it: “that’s not really a problem.” (c) top it: “compared to what I had to do.” (d) interrupt them in the middle of their sente…

Great decision-makers listen and then apply a suitable style, specific to that situation.

Another key trait we have observed is the use of data.

  • They typically are aware of the market value of their product. We don’t mean the price, but the value it provides, the market size of people that could buy the product and that of the competition.
  • They know how well the product is doing right now. Revenue, cost, growth, conversion, customer love; they know it and can back it up with numbers.
  • The technical state of the product. How focussed they are, how much energy is spent on other work and older versions. Is technical debt increasing or decreasing? what is acceptable?
  • The value chain. How fast can we learn, test an idea, get a new feature in the hands of customers? How quickly can we respond? Given the fact that these are well known lean principles, it is amazing how few Product Owners actually have the data.

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”
― W. Edwards Deming

The Product Owner as a Decision Maker

With the many Product Owners and Product Managers we have trained and coached in their daily practice, we’ve observed the following patterns in the way that Product Owners act as decision makers.

  • Call the shots; these Product Owners have a strong sense of urgency or simply don’t like waiting. The like action and make decisions quickly, they also tend to decide independently of what other people think. They get stuff done.
  • Pace car; a distinct different variant makes sure that the work gets done but is down in trenches with the team, making sure they get through the consequences of the decisions they make.
  • Salesman; some Product Owners spend significant time convincing people of their idea. Usually, the decision still lies with them, but they make sure people believe it is the right thing to do.
  • We together; Scrum is about leveraging the team, hence the phrase: “take it to the team.” Good advice, but it slows down the decision-making process to check if everyone is on-board. These Product Owners make decisions that are often widely respected and supported.
  • Democratic; a different variant is often resulting in a majority vote. It’s faster and everyone is involved but it is not about reaching a consensus but finding the most widely supported outcome.
  • Coaching; “How would we tackle this? and then if that would happen what could we do?” These Product Owners nudge the team into asking the right questions themselves. These Product Owners usually thrive when the product begins to scale.