The Influencer Product Owner

What is an Influencer?

Some of the most famous and influencial leaders of all times include people like Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. These gentlemen are in all the top-10 lists of being the ‘the best’ Politician, Influencer, world changer, etc. etc. And indeed, these people have all had a big impact on their people, countries and/or the world. Most of these people eventually got elected into a position of power, which offered them even more opportunities to change the world, however they all started with no authority, but just being a visionary, inspirational person and above all, a great Influencer.

So before diving into the Product Owner taking an Influencer stance, let’s first inspect what an Influencer is. Since Wikipedia doesn’t offer us an answer on the question “What is an Influencer?”, we decided to check out the good old Cambridge English Dictionary, which offers us the following definition:

“A person or group that has the ability to influence the behaviour or opinions of others.”
— Cambridge English Dictionary, Oktober 2019 —

Looking and Product Owners who are great Influencers, they are considered to be Product Owners who get things done without exercising formal authority over a person or team. Great influencers act and speak in such ways that they may hardly be noticed when present, but dearly missed when they are gone. The Influencer helps the stakeholders to align around the product vision, strategy, goals and objectives. Influencing the stakeholders and Scrum Team is a hard but very important job. The Influencer uses effective communication, negotiation and influencing skills to get people to join the cause. Influencers are aware of their environment, both the official reporting structure as well as the unofficial ways and know who influences who.

“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” ― Winston Churchill

The Influencer is also referred to as the Politician.

The Influencer Product Owner and Agile

Of course, the Agile Manifesto has no principles and makes no notions about the art of influencing people their thoughts and behaviors. Yet, if we want to be successful as an Agile team, having an Influential Product Owner (and Scrum Master) is quite important…

5. “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
— Agile Manifesto, Principle #5 —

Motivation isn’t something that comes out of thin air right? Of course, people can have a strong personal motivation to achieve something, like a personal goal, target or vision for example. Yet, if you want teams to be aligned and work towards the same goals and objectives, it might be useful to be able to influence people. Besides that creating an environment with trust and support is something that also requires the necessary influencing skills in our experience…

Looking at other sources, such as the book The Professional Product Owner or the contents of a Professional Scrum Product Owner training, Product Owners indeed have a great deal to do with influencing people, such as influencing and aligning all the stakeholders around the product vision, strategy, roadmap and product backlog order.

From a Product Management, Agile and Professional Scrum perspective, we can only say that taking the Influencerstance every now and then is key to being a successful Product Owner. The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product. In this maximizing of value, we’ll continuously encounter customers, users and stakeholders who have different opinions than we do, right? Some strong influencing skills might therefore be pretty usefull…

What great Influencers do

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 Influencers:

  • Trusted advisors swear to it: Be honest. Always; What some great Product Owners and Product Managers do so well, is to always be open, honest and transparent. They know what they know and the know that they don’t know even more. Being honest can sometimes be difficult because it makes you vulnerable. It reveals who we really are and discloses our mistakes, which gives others the opportunity to criticize or reject openly. However, being honest develops character and builds credibility and trust, which are the foundation to evoke confidence and respect from those around you.
  • They are compassionate; Compassion is the quality of understanding suffering of others and wanting to do something about it. While many see compassion as a weakness, true compassion is a characteristic that converts knowledge to wisdom. Great leaders use compassion to discover the needs of those he or she leads and then in order to determine the next steps to take.
  • They are flexible and great listeners; Flexibility is about understanding the give-and-take aspects of politics. It’s about understanding the different interests in the company. And it is about the ability to find the common ground. Great influencers listen carefully to all sides. They listen to the different interests, goals and objectives. They do not only hear their own arguments and they try to learn what it will take on behalf of all parties involved to reach a consensus. These skills allow Influencers to recognize setbacks and criticism, to learn from it and then to move on.
  • A good leader takes little more than his share of the blame and little less than his share of the credit; This is how Arnold H. Glasow described a core quality of great leaders. Great Product Owner give the credit to their teams and stakeholders for building a great product. They take the blame when it turns out a failure. In the end, it’s all about taking your responsibility.
  • They are great network builders; Great influencers move beyond the awareness of the stakeholder playing field and create specific strategies to pro-actively seek out the help and rally stakeholders to their cause. For example rather than only relying on Sprint Review to craft a path forward, they massage critical stakeholders and avoid surprises.
  • They have the ability to bend reality; Great influencers seem to bend the reality perception. For example a stakeholder might disagree with the direction of the product and the Product Owner may say: “what could go wrong if we didn’t do this?” having the stakeholder arguing his case. Or if the stakeholder is hesitantly aligning with your strategy a Product Owner may ask “what additional benefits would we receive from this strategy?”
  • They are familiar with the word… No! Perhaps the defining quality of a great influencer is their ability to say “no”. Handling the resistance that comes from not getting your way and without getting your ego bruised is what makes great influencers shine.
  • Influencers know that it’s not about them; Great Influencers share and communicate their dream, ideas and vision often. They don’t keep their vision and ideas to themselves because they know that they cannot get to the destination alone. They need others for their journey and therefore they communicate often to attract the right people. Influencing leaders however are also accepting of change. They are open to invite others to join and to add to the vision and make it their own. Like this funny movie visualizes so strongly, it isn’t really about the leader, it is the first follower that matters.

The Product Owner as an Influencer

Obviously, not all (Product Owner) Influencers are the same. That being said, some positive outcomes and benefits that we observe when Product Owners take the Influencer stance more often is:

  • Great influencers are able to build a united force, having a positive impact on organizational effectiveness. Inspired by a strong vision, influencers manage to achieve buy-in amongst people and bring them together. Influencers built up energy and make change happen. It is inspiring to others and aligns them to work towards a shared goal.
  • Better aligned and bought-in stakeholders, customers, users and teams around a shared vision, strategy and approach, who make an effort to have a positive contribution and actively support the product to become successful.
  • Fewer arguments, delays of decisions, political games, power struggles and other forms of negative and wasted energy which slows down the development process.