Of Groundswell and Product Owners

I have just finished reading Groundswell by Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research.  The book has been around for awhile but its concepts are worth understanding.  Its a great book about how Social Technologies have changed the way companies relate to their customers.  Not only that but how companies can benefit from Social Technologies within their own organisation.  Its a good read, get hold of a copy.  The book is rich with Internet law, marketing tips, research and good practice.  It gave me some ideas on how Groundswell could be used to provide a product owner with some powerful tooling.

Groundswell shows a way to tool up your Product Owner?

One of the most important scrum principles is to assign a Product Owner.

Vietnam, man takes a call in the temple.
Tool me up, Temple, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Martin Harris

This person should have a very good understanding of the business.  At first glance is seems like a good idea for that person to be an active part of the business.  For a single dealer platform it looks like a good idea to recruit someone who actively deals or for a legal application a senior member of the law staff.  The problem with this is a dealer is likely to be too busy looking after money, and the Lawyer is in and out of court.  Active members of the business have better things to do, so we have to look elsewhere for our product owners.

Some links if your interested in the problems a product owner deals with and how to find a suitable candidate:

Being an effective product owner

Product owner – Choosing the right person for the job

So instead another option is to appoint a business proxi.  Perhaps a Business Analyst or a traditional Project Manager.  There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this and I have seen it work well but at the end of the day this person needs to tune into their sponsors and customers.  This is where the book Groundswell comes in.  Groundswell has several documented cases where Social Technologies have been used to garner information from communities, check out this blog post for some idea of the mechanics.  Some such cases have been in areas where it would normally be very difficult to get any feedback from the community i.e. a pharmaceutical company setting up support communities for cancer patients.

There is one great example of Credit Mutuel a French retail bank who asked of their customers “If I were a banker” and collected responses on what the customers thought the bank should be doing.  A huge wave of Groundswell resulted in the bank making changes and in Credit Mutuel benefiting from increased competitive advantage.  They were able to respond to customers quickly and make the changes they deemed sensible.  The customers loved it.  There is a caveat to this though.  You have to be able to turn around changes quickly, and now we are back to scrum.  A development system that done well can implement software changes quickly in reaction to a clients demands.  What I am suggesting is that correct use of Groundswell could make the product owners job easier.

In particular within organisations who have trouble getting the right kind of requirements from the users of the applications we write.  I have worked in several industries where getting access to your users is a real problem.  Lawyers and Traders who are just phenomenally busy and expensive, highly dispersed users of global applications where the logistics of visiting them all is impossible.

In the book there are several documented cases where companies like Communispace or Passenger setup and manage systems to recruit and manage a comunity focused around a product or idea.  I think it would be great to try out ideas like this to gather information about an important software product from its internal and external users.  The end game, is to gather the best ideas, then put them back to the community for voting and prioritisation.  Yes, you get a ready made backlog off the back of this.  How incredibly handy is that!  Take a look at this, its pretty much a community fed backlog used by Salesforce.com: http://sites.force.com/ideaexchange/. Here is another that Dell use based on the same Crispy News system: http://www.ideastorm.com/

I think that doing something like this has these benefits possibly more:

  • It helps the product owner get a more representative view of what the customers think is important.  What requirements they put at the top.
  • The customers feel more involved in the evolution of the product.
  • Your scrum team is likely to find out some things that all the experts and analysis have missed.

Its powerful, but as with any power tool be careful!

  • You will have to show both the good and bad feedback.  Are you ready for the honesty required?  Make sure all your sponsors are prepared.
  • The scrum team should be ready and established, if you can’t turn around the best ideas quickly the mood will quickly turn sour.
  • It takes a great deal of skill and a degree of humility to make this work, but the closer alignment with your customer will soon show results.

So why not give it a try?

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