As a UX Designer, my relationship with my Product Owner has always been the most influential at any given company, bringing with it all kinds of challenges, opportunities for added visibility and momentum, and... opportunities for miscommunication. Yes, relationships with the rest of the design team are important and overall Product team dynamics also impact my work life. But the Product Owner relationship seems to be the litmus test for how a project, role, week, day is going to go. When I think of each meeting I had throughout a given week, the common denominator was always my Product Owner. Whether it was a stand-up meeting, design sign-off with the CEO, a customer interview, or a requirements meeting, my Product Owner was at the center of these conversations.
So when I had coffee with a friend this weekend and she talked about how much her relationship with her Product Owner was negatively impacting her day-to-day job, I wasn't surprised. I had been there myself. The Product Owner that feels their authority is threatened by research, or who controls each meeting agenda and invitation, or when push comes to shove throws me under the bus in a decision meeting... It can feel like an impossible battle. After turning around 2 Product Owner relationships that seemed irreparable, I want to share a few ways that helped me correct the ship, which ultimately led to me being much happier in my day-to-day job and creating some meaningful products with the help of my Product Owner.
As with any good UX design project, we want to start with research. Learn more about your Product Owner so that you can better understand the big picture of what they're dealing with. Your just part of what your Product Owner is working on. Most likely they're also dealing with Project Management, business expectations, external deadlines and client factors, development team dynamics and productivity, as well as anything going on in their personal life. Start by understanding what all is included in their role at your company. Look at their job description, Google a definition based on their title, and listen in meetings when they talk about what they're balancing.
I put together a few articles that showcase the challenges that many Product Owners face. The goal in reading these articles isn't to be able to tell your Product Owner what they're doing wrong (please don't do that), but rather to show that this role comes with many conflicting focuses and priorities that they need to balance. And to show you that your Product Owner isn't alone in their struggles. Just like you're not the only UX Designer struggling with being viewed as a mockup maker or how to showcase the logic of your work in a meaningful yet concise way, your Product Owner isn't the only one struggling with organization, creating accurate and transparent timelines, and not micromanaging design or development.
All relationships have internal and external factors that bring people closer or farther apart. In this case, what are the areas that get in the way of you having a stronger relationship with your Product Owner? And keep in mind the blockers that get in their way as well as your own way. I've listed a few of the elements that were true for me:
While this isn't a comprehensive list, I do think there's one area that should be focused on first -- TRUST. If lack of trust is on your list, working on that one piece will have the greatest and quickest impact on your relationship. In order to build trust, I have a few guidelines that are important to keep in mind. These might seem obvious but it's important to keep these front of mind in your interactions to make sure building trust is your focus.
Starting with a project with a clear scope -- or even carving out a smaller project out of the larger one you're working on -- helps to figure out how you'd like to work together without the external pressure and added factors that a large project can bring. This will give you both a good foundation to build upon later. You can use this smaller project to experiment with ways of communicating, bringing them into decision conversations, how to gather requirements, how to ask for feedback. And ultimately, this will give each of you the space to learn more about one another and build rapport.
If a small project isn't possible right now, be intentional with how you engage with your Product Owner on the larger project. How are you asking for feedback? Are you providing them context and showing that your designs are there to help them make a decision? Are you bringing them along on the design journey or are they surprised and confused when you reveal your work for the first time? If presenting to a stakeholder together, are you making sure you're on the same page and aligned going into that meeting?
I've found that when working together with others it's easier for me to focus on the bad -- why did they say X when we wanted Z to happen? This doesn't usually bring a relationship forward unless you're willing to have a larger conversation about it with the other person. And sometimes... the small interaction doesn't seem worth the large conversation. In my experience you can either let it go and focus on the good things that did happen and emphasize the good things or get used to having the uncomfortable conversations. There isn't a right or wrong answer -- sometimes it depends on the situation and what you're comfortable doing. For me, emphasizing the good has been more effective in turning around relationships and has resulted in fewer arguments, misunderstandings, and fueling the fire. But just because that's my approach, doesn't mean it has to be yours.
If you're in this situation now or have gotten through a challenging Product Owner relationship, I'd love to hear about what you're trying, what's worked, and what hasn't worked for you in the past! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your insights!
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