In my work as an Agile coach, I often try to help product owners by comparing the work they do to how we act and behave in sports. Usually, sports metaphors are easy to understand and people can easily relate to them. So using sports metaphors often makes my life as an agile coach easier. Recently I wrote an article about the role of an internal Agile coach and mentioned that business mastery focusses on getting the right value for the business. Although this one sentence might sound easy, it is very difficult to get everybody aligned and deliver business value. In the next paragraphs, I will discuss a few obstacles Product Owners are facing in an agile environment and try to find similar sports metaphors to look for solutions.

Obstacle 1: Why…..?

Simon Sinek stated in his book, “Start with Why“, we want to be surrounded by people who have the same values and beliefs. Moreover, we tend to buy and take an extra step if we believe in the why. Usually, our product owners and leadership team members are having trouble to really state the WHY of our strategies. This makes it difficult for team members to put 100% effort to reach our business goals. In sports terms, if we say we want to lose 30kg, we have to find out why it is important for you to lose 30kg. You probably don’t want to lose the weight just for the sake of it, most likely it is because you want to be able to play catch with your children. If you dig even deeper on why that is important to you, you might get surprising answers, in which you really get motivated to reach your goal.

This is also the case for business. If you want to deliver some new features to your customers, you have to dig deeper into why it is so important. Finding the why will then get you and your teams motivated to reach the goal.

Obstacle 2: Setting goals instead of demanding functionality

One of the important aspects of an Agile way of working is to visualize and create transparency. Tools like a portfolio wall or a roadmap wall are often used by Product Owners to visualize the business value to be generated. Too often I notice that the roadmap is filled with functionality which we think that customers are demanding and functionality that creates business value. We then focus on multiple functionalities and get our roadmap for half of a year or a year. By the time we are finished with one roadmap item, the world has evolved and we have to change the rest of the roadmap. One way to address this is to have a roadmap based on goals instead of functionality. So basically, instead of having a roadmap item like “more mobile friendly images on the website”, the goal on the roadmap should be “improve the mobile sales by 10%” or “increase mobile visitors by 20%”. With goals on the roadmap, teams can then think of all needed to reach the goals within certain time.

From a sports perspective, a soccer metaphor is in place. When the team is conceding too many goals, good coaches will not tell the team “in the next three matches I want the defenders to kick the ball as far as possible” (functionality). Good coaches share their observations with the team and set a goal for the next matches like “we have to reduce the number of goals we concede resulting from free kicks and corners ” or “we want to reduce the number of personal mistakes which lead to a goal by our opponent”. Together with his staff and the players they then think about the ways to reach this goal and how to train to reach the goal. From business perspective Product Owners and leadership teams can set the same goals on the roadmap and let the teams and fellow Product Owners think about functionalities needed to reach these goals.

Obstacle 3: Long-term goals

One of the seven habits of effective people by Steven Covey is to start with the end in mind. This means that you have to have an end goal and start with the first steps to achieve your goal. Too often, however, we tend to set our goals for the end of the year or the next 3 years without thinking how we can take the first baby steps into reaching our goal. Although the long-term goal provides you direction, you will rarely see the progress and it feels like you are never going to reach your goal. Even if you have set your WHY, it is still challenging to stay motivated if you haven’t reached your goals. In Scrum, for example, the team delivers business value every sprint. Thus providing an organization the agility to stop after sprint X once the goal has been reached. Consequently, the organization can then focus reaching new goals.

In sports, we see the same pattern. Let’s assume you have a really good “why” and you think you can achieve your goal by running the marathon. If you start with trying to run for 42 km on day one, you will be disappointed on the first day and every other day that you have failed to run the full 42 km. However, if you start with a smaller goal and you want to run for 1 km after one week, you can then easily reach your goal and start evaluating and setting your next goal. By reaching your short-term goals, you’ll stay motivated to continue and see the progress towards your final goal, which by the way may not be the 42 km at all

I believe that there are more obstacles product owners are facing in delivering business value in an Agile environment than the three mentioned in this article. However, if you anticipate on these three major obstacles, it should help you in getting closer to delivering business value in an Agile environment.