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The most important part of Product Ownership: Providing purpose

Becoming a successful Scrum Team depends on creating a shared sense of purpose. This blog explains why purpose is so important and how you share this with your team as a Product Owner. 

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Recently, I wrote about the 3 newbie mistakes I made as a new Product Owner. Kindly, my Scrum Master and Agile coach Marcello Commisso pushed me to share the other side: what I get right as a Product Owner.

There are a lot of skills a Product Owner must possess, but in my opinion, the single most important one is providing purpose. Without a sense of direction, a purpose to unite around, a Scrum team is simply ticking off a list of tasks and stories.

Why is purpose so important?

One of my all-time favourite TED talks is “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. He describes the role of purpose in business: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. The same goes within companies. People don’t just get a sense of satisfaction from output or deadlines. They need a sense of purpose, to understand how their piece of the puzzle contributes to something larger than themselves.  

“When you're surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.” – Howard Schultz

You can’t just make up purpose. As a Product Owner, you need to make sure you understand what your company purpose is, and go hunting for answers if you don’t. Decision making is controlled by the same part of the brain as feelings. If you want to lead a team that’s empowered and takes ownership of creative problem solving, then you need them understand the purpose as well as you do.

A sense of purpose is a deep understanding of the reasons behind our efforts and a desire to pour in time and energy because that purpose resonates with the impact we’d like to make on the world. – Kimber Lockhart

It can be easy to fall into the project management trap of creating a sense of urgency, instead of a sense of purpose. But the risk of focusing on deadlines rather than purpose is that the team misses “why” they’re doing something. The space for creative problem solving is squeezed out as you rush towards the finish line. People hesitate to step back and examine if the path they’re on is the best way to get to the goal. But it’s in these minutes and hours that days can be saved in the longer run.  

Yes, deadlines can be helpful mechanisms to rally a team, but a sense of urgency can’t be the goal in itself. Kimber Lockhart shared this fantastic Venn diagram that shows where your time as a Product Owner is best spent:

Applying purpose to the NZ Transport Agency website rebuild

Last week, at a recent marketing meetup, I heard Paul Giles and Linley Scammell speak on the process of building the Transport Agency’s new website on SilverStripe CMS. I was inspired by their customer-centric approach and sense of purpose. In every element of the website redesign, they talked about the impact it would have on their users and how that connected to Transport Agency’s purpose.  For example, the information architecture was lead by the purpose of making it easier for customers to fulfil tasks by prioritising key information and decluttering pages.

NZTA Screenshot comparison

By focusing on the user, and allowing key tasks to be performed faster, Transport Agency dramatically changed their information and design approach. A clear sense of purpose drove this project from day one.

When you take a look at the Transport Agency’s public purpose statement, you can see why this project was so successful. The organisation’s purpose is clear and free of fluffiness. Whether you’re working in a website development team or customer support team, you’d be able to read this and understand how you can contribute to the Transport Agency’s purpose.

As the Product Owner, Paul infused this purpose into the project at each step. This took the end result beyond simply fulfilling the functional requirement of “a website that lets people renew their driver’s licenses online”, it also delivered on their purpose of making it easy for customers to do business with the Transport Agency.  

How to communication purpose?

Whenever we sit down for team planning sessions, I try to start with the “why”.

  • Why is this story important?

  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Why is this a problem?

  • Why are we doing it now? This is a great question to ask yourself too! Is this the most important thing you and the team could be building right now?

  • If we succeed, what will happen?

  • Who does this change affect most?

Showing rather than telling is often more effective, so another key for providing purpose is to enable opportunities for the team to meet with the people that will ultimately benefit from their work. I have an easier job of this as my teams are marketing and community focused, so there’re plenty of opportunities at events, meetups and training courses to speak directly with our users. But we also manufacture reasons to talk to users about the specific things we’re working on, such as community surveys or through Intercom live chat on our website.

Connecting day-to-day to the bigger picture

It’s easy to talk about strategy and purpose once a quarter and then shelf it again when you get busy. Sometimes the results of the things you build will take weeks or months to be realised. When the team has moved on to the next challenge, it’s still important to create feedback loops so that they can see the results of previous work.  

At SilverStripe, we use the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework to connect a quarter’s work to the company’s purpose. Each team is able to shape the Objectives that are focused on, and how they best reflect the company purpose. This has been incredibly helpful to my role as a Product Owner, we can discuss stories in context of these OKRs and they provide measurable goals that we can track progress against. OKRs provide context to discuss each story as we bring it into the sprint, and allows the team to challenge if we’re working on the most important thing to get us to our goals.  

POBooklet2 1

OKRs are a helpful structure that allows teams to feed towards a shared purpose, while also acknowledging different responsibilities and approaches, but wrapped around everything from tasks to OKRs is a sense of purpose.

There’s nothing as rewarding as working on projects that make a difference. Make sure you’re sharing that feeling with your team too!

Improving your own Product Ownership skills

If you’re learning to be a Product Owner or wanting to improve, check out our Product Owner Mojo Booster. This guide is packed with SilverStripe experience on Product Ownership for embarking on this awesome challenge.

 Download our guide for FREE now!



About the author
Nicole Williams

Nicole has over 10 years experience in marketing and communications. As Head of Product, she is responsible for overseeing product management, product delivery, and marketing at SilverStripe. Nicole is responsible for engaging with public sector agencies to drive forward the vision and roadmap for the Common Web Platform, harnessing the potential of open source to share government innovation

Nicole is an advocate for knowledge sharing, believing it’s key to keeping up with the pace of tech. Her writing has been featured on Hubspot, and Huffington Post.


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