The Virtue of Scientific Discipline

This is part of a series on the key virtues of excellent Product Ownership.

The Virtue: Scientific Discipline 

I admit, this one combines a few qualities that make someone’s approach to problem solving incredible. The excellence of scientific product innovation requires the ability to identify and challenge assumptions in isolation so that purposeful experimentation and learning can occur. To succeed at disrupting a market, there is a permanent restlessness and curiosity, a willingness to challenge the status quo. The discipline part requires an understanding of what to measure, how to measure it, and the patience to consistently track and communicate your findings.

The vice of deficiency here is a total lack of experimentation. Say “no” to 99% of requests that don’t fit your vision or serve the longer term goal, absolutely; but if you say “no” to 100% of ideas that come your way, focus on locking things down and playing it safe, you’ll destroy any chance of innovation and your customers will abandon you. As Product Owner, it’s assumed that you are controlling a continuous stream of changes. Passively following an original plan or passively fulfilling stakeholder requests is a lack of experimentation of your own. If you don’t insist on tracking the results of their ideas, you’re also just plain unscientific. Empirical process control (Scrum) implies learning through purposeful experimentation. As the Product Owner, your laboratory is the product-market fit and your target result is the sustainable viability of your (Product) business model.

Of course, the vice of excess here is uncontrolled chaos. Drastic changes without rhyme or reason do not lead to adaptation. Evolution takes the discipline to kill tiny bad ideas as they fail and build on the successes. In Scrum this is an unfortunate use of “super-epics” like “LETS DO SOCIAL!!” Adding 7 social networks at once to a product is the undisciplined throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall chaos I’m talking about here, and it is inevitable when you separate market planning from development planning. As soon as the developer don’t seem overwhelmed by the size of the backlog, stakeholder start feature-stuffing so they don’t feel like agile means “paying people to sit around”.

So the virtue in the middle that is absolutely essential as a Product Owner – whether you are an entrepreneur with a 5-person Scrum team or you are in the middle of a 5,000-strong software-at-scale enterprise – is scientific discipline feast or famine, insist on controlled experimentation not chaos. Insist on purposeful validation of each hypothesis, not hand-wavey assumptions. Insist on actionable metrics and clear articulation and confirmation on whether the product is progressing correctly.

Because you are the single point of failure for information flow, only you can courageously take a stand before things are out of hand. Stay disciplined and rational, but enjoy creative experimentation.

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