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Who should own the feature set?


By Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting


One of the more difficult decisions in building products has to do with who should have final say on the feature set of product.  On the one hand, in the interest of clarity and speed a single Product Manager making final decisions can move quickly and provide good coherence with previous decisions made.  On the other hand, a group of people can provide good balance and a broad understanding of the product’s needs. In my experience, there is no single good answer to this problem.


Given the need for speed having a single Product Owner seems like an obvious solution.  He or she can provide a single focus on that product and be available quickly for the decisions that need to be made. That individual can integrate all the previous decisions and be sure that the decisions being made fit well with the previous decisions that have been made.  A single individual can keep a coherent picture of the product and mold it in a uniform way.  Having a single mind integrating the various parts of the product is one of the few ways to bring simplicity and uniformity to a product. A single individual can move quickly and be readily available to make decisions.


Some of the negative aspects of a single individual making all the decisions is that one person, unchecked, can be wrong and lead to a totally bad result. An individual can be tyrannical and not allow for reasonable participation by others. If the one individual is away then all decisions stop while that person is unavailable. One could have a back-up that can stand-in, but now some of the benefits of a single mind making the decisions are lost. For complex products, it is hard to imagine a single individual knowing enough to make all the feature decisions.


A group of people in charge of a product brings a different set of advantages. The complexity of some products is so large that having multiple people drive that product creates a higher probability of getting it right.  A group of people can balance each other and catch errors and missteps.  Some people do their best thinking in a group setting and group can spark creativity that for some will never occur if they are left to themselves.  A group of people can make it much easier for broader buy-in and acceptance of the solution.


Some of the negative aspects of a group making the decisions is that they may take a very long time to make any decisions.  They may lose the coherence of a good design as different people drive different decisions at different times. (The old joke of designed by committee” comes from some reality).  Good ideas can die because the group does not see the goodness of the idea.  The group may have personality or political conflicts within the group that make it hard to get decisions that stick.


I am not sure there is a single good answer to this problem.  The structure adopted will depend on the organization’s culture and the people available to do the work.  There are some guiding principles that I have found to work well.


There should always be a working group where items are aired, brainstormed, and discussed. Even if a single person makes the final decisions, this kind of working group goes a long way to getting good decisions. The team needs to understand what they are doing and why and these working groups are a great way to make that happen.


Issues and decisions should be documented so that people know what is being done.   Everyone needs oversight and a good way to do that is to document what is going on so that others can follow it and decide if what is going on makes sense. Whether it is a group or an individual making the decisions, the openness provided by these documents (distributed widely) goes a long way in helping avoid a drift in the wrong direction.


A review committee that can be used as a place for appealing decisions is usually essential. We all need a place to go when we think things are going wrong. Going to the boss is often avoided in many organizations.  Having a governance process that makes appealing decisions straightforward and not personal can help avoid drifting in the wrong direction.  There has to be an easy process for people to object.


Making product decisions well is obviously very important.  There is no single answer to the organizational style that leads to great decisions.  Unfortunately, it depends.  Companies have to find a style that works for their organization with the products they are trying to manage.  Small products and big products may lead to very different solutions in the same organization.  Whatever process you use keep a critical eye on it and change it when it does not work.

Send comments to: fred@westerlyconsulting.com