13. Juli 2016

The Layer Cake of Trust

Katrin Sauer

At Leanovate, we are a group of curious and dedicated product people – product owners, product thinkers, product users ... One afternoon in a fresh-air break, we once again launched into a discussing of “product”. More specifically: "What makes it so hard to be an excellent product person?" We all know the tools, but still... we struggle.

It’s “Product or Bust”

At first glance, a product is just a thing. Someone has built or developed it, and someone else buys, installs or assembles, and uses it. Simple.
Now look at a startup – it usually has just one product. And this product will decide the company’s fate. If the product fails, there will be no more startup. Done. Gone. Another one bites the dust.
“Product” is suddenly so much more – it is the pivotal, decisive element for a whole organization. In larger companies, one product might not be the make-or-break factor. Nevertheless: One failed product can induce a significant crisis.
To place a company’s fate in a product means a large leap of faith, you must believe that the risks you take will pay off. It is a sign of confidence, of trust in the different people, teams, cogs and wheels necessary to bring a product to success.

The PO's job: Owning the product means dealing with the layers of trust.

In Product We Trust

Trust in product is trust on many different levels. Every single one of these layers needs time to be established and attended to to remain stable … like a delicious layer cake.
What are the different layers of trust in a product? Who are the people behind it? And if you asked them, what would they say they place their trust in? In our discussion at Leanovate, we came up with the following (with no expectation that it is complete):

Trust in a product – from within the company

The Board – I trust that...

  • “It will move the company forward.”
  • “We can build a future on it.”
  • “It differentiates us from our competition.”
  • “It is done on-budget and on-time.”

The investors – I trust that...

  • “It will earn us back the money we’ve invested – with interest.”

Marketing and Sales – I trust that...

  • “It has features that are interesting for customers so that we can sell it.”
  • “The benefit of using the product is easy to communicate."
  • “It is completed on time.”
  • “It is flexible enough so that we can react to changing customer requirements.”

Support – I trust that…

  • “Customers are happy and won’t call angry.”
  • “I understand why our customers need it.”

Employees – I trust that...

  • “It makes me proud to tell my friends about it.”
  • “I enjoy working on it.”
  • “It’s a challenge.”
  • “It gives me a long term goal.”


Trust in a product – from the outside

Customers (= the people who pay for it) and Users (= the people who use it) – I trust that...

  • “It is worth the money I’ve spent on it.”
  • “It does what I want and expect.”
  • “It solves my problem.”
  • "It is stable and I can use it at any time without any problems."


Under pressure

All this trust generates immense expectations (and pressure) focussed on one group of people in the company: the product managers or product owners. Why? Because to everyone in the company they represent the product. They don't just have to build something nice. No! Product people are responsible for making the right decisions so “the right things are done at the right time” – fulfilling all the wishes listed above. That's what makes being an excellent PO such a tough job.
The good thing is that they (we!) are not alone, neither in finding a decision nor in dealing with the consequences, if – and this is a very important if – we collaborate. With each other, with other departments, customers, users, etc.
At the same time, product people need the freedom and power to assume responsibility. Nothing feels more frustrating than being responsible for something that you can not actually influence.
Freedom and power usually don’t just get spread around. The basis for it is - you guessed it – TRUST. Trust in the product person, thereby introducing the next layer, and the next challenge: How to build trust with our stakeholders. Some advice on what helps build trust in our blog post: If you trust me, say "Hello"!


Katrin Sauer
Agile | Product | Coaching

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