You’re not a stakeholder, you’re a product owner

Enterprises make so many mistakes in the commissioning and maintaining of software and applications, but one of the most fundamental is the definition of ‘stakeholder’ in a project.

Most enterprise employees who are anointed with this hallowed title take this to mean ‘someone who can demand things’ at worst, to ‘subject matter expert’ at best.  But almost none of them really understand that as a stakeholder their responsibility doesn’t only lie in telling others what needs to be included in the project spec.

It also doesn’t help that usually the project sponsor or main contact within the enterprise is usually assumed to be the person who’s responsible for the project’s output. Some businesses even specifically have product owner roles for this purpose, but they’re more of a steward than an owner, looking after the creation and maintenance of the software rather than deciding on its scope and road map. These product owners are probably more likely to be product managers in reality. By which I mean they manage a portfolio of tools and systems that are key to the running of the business or its interactions with customers.

Commissioning a major change

Let me use an analogy. Imagine the product is a puppy. Or at least it’s going to be as you don’t have the puppy yet. You may have an old dog that’s had a wonderful life but is past her prime. In order to keep your home life on an even keel, have a faithful friend who’s always happy to see you, go on long walks with you and fetch the newspaper from the front porch after playfully barking at the terrorised delivery person, the time will come when she needs to be replaced.

So you ask Dad to buy a new puppy. You could buy a rescue dog, but you can’t be sure of their habits and that they’ll be comfortable in your home. So you choose the option that allows you maximum control: starting afresh with a young dog you can train the way you want it.

Here’s the first problem. The rest of the family want a say in the kind of puppy you get – after all they’re going to be sharing a house with the new pet, it’s only right they be comfortable with the home’s new addition. Someone doesn’t want it to be too big, another not too small, definitely not yappy and spiteful, most agree on one that doesn’t shed hair too much or too often, probably shorthaired, one that’ll be playful but not too ebullient, one that’ll raise the alarm if someone suspicious tries to get into the home, but not a dog that won’t stop barking… and let’s not forget what you want out of all of this too.

You trawl around a few reputable breeders’ kennels looking for what you want, probably finding likely candidates in a couple of them, and then it’s down to the haggling as to which breeder sells you the puppy, but finally the deal is done and a pup has a new home.

Now, despite all the agreement to date about what the puppy should be like, the reality of getting it home, house-breaking it, training it, taking it for walks, feeding it, and so on, all start to settle in and, unsurprisingly everyone is looking at each other to take responsibility for all of this because “I was only asked for my opinion, not to look after it”.

And so it falls to Dad to do all the work, trying to get the dog to go for walks, eat the right things (not the couch!) at the right times, play with her, teach her to obey commands, both the basics and the fun ones, and to not go to the toilet in the corner of the living room!

Then when you try to get her to come to you, to roll over, she won’t always do what you expect her to. When she wants to go for a walk you ignore her, or only go for the briefest of sojourns around the block. And when she DOES urinate in the corner of the living room you do your best to ignore it until Dad spots it and then you keep out of the way when he gets angry because no-one said anything, and worse still no-one has done anything about it, and there’s no way you couldn’t have spotted it, you people live here too and it was you lot who wanted the ruddy animal in the first place!

Who owns the change?

To put it another way, ‘Dad’ is the enterprise, or at least its commissioning committee/board, the ‘breeder’ is your tech consultancy who are providing the ‘puppy’, your new software or application. All the things you asked for from your puppy are your operating and features brief, the others in your house the other business departments who have an interest in the application from one perspective or another. The puppy’s behaviour is how well your software performs when it’s being built or has been delivered, and peeing in the corner is that big crunch that comes with all software tools when they ultimately haven’t been built correctly and cause a major problem. And your refusal to get involved beyond asking for what you want… is just that.

Abrogating responsibility for a tech solution being built to solve a problem for the enterprise is exactly the same as being in a family that gets a puppy and then you never taking it for a walk, or feeding it, or tidying up after it. You own it as well. You chose its base characteristics, but it needs to develop to get to the right place. It’s down to you to be involved in making it what you want it to be, and being part of the solution when things don’t go to plan rather than just rolling your eyes at another project that’s not been delivered properly. 

If the business takes your brief and you don’t stay involved, it’s not their fault if the application or software tool doesn’t turn out as you would have hoped. If you don’t stay involved in the build, maintenance and improvement of the product you can’t complain because it doesn’t do what you want in the way you expect it to. Then when it fails to do its job properly, you’re partly responsible for that by not having been responsible for it at all when you really needed to be.

Success requires involvement. And ownership.

Too many stakeholders leave it to the commissioning team to take ownership of a tech project, saying they’re too busy with their “real work”, or that they’re not the techie here. You don’t have to handle a dog all day to help train it, and neither do you need to be a professional dog trainer to understand how to get your dog to be what you want her to be. In fact, professional dog trainers will tell you that a badly-behaved dog is the fault of the owners, not the dog.

You have to make the time to be involved in your tech projects. You have to be available when the help is needed to clarify to resolve issues. You have to keep an eye on it and let everyone else know when there’s a problem they’ve not spotted, and then work with them all to get to a solution. Ultimately your business managers, the C-suite team, won’t be angry with you if you’ve taken the time to make sure that the business and its newest software tool is working as well as it can. But you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be angry with you if you let things mount up and get so bad that it pees in the corner of the boardroom.

You’re a product owner, not a stakeholder. 

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