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I am looking for motivational strategies that can be employed to sweeten the deal for the product owners to make them more interested in the development of new products.

Some background: I work for a medium sized business as an engineer. At our company, the process of development of new products can described like this. Firstly, the manager of engineer team researches the market and determines what new products might be needed. They then discusses this with us, engineers and tries to persuade the product owners that this is a direction we want to move towards. If they succeed, one of the engineers is chosen as a manager of the project and starts to develop this new idea. Hopefully, the project ends in a success and the company ends up with a new product at the end.

The problem is that the involvement of the product owners is almost zero during all stages of the project development up until it is almost ready to be sold. In fact, it seems that they are only called product owners because they will be managing the sales of the product later in the future. However, their expertise in managing sales could be useful to us. They have a much better feel of our customers, general trends in the market, etc. They could do some more research on the evolution of the market and help us decide what projects are most beneficial to pursue. Yet, their work at the moment mostly boils down on what we can sell at this very moment. This is of course, very important. Probably more important than the development of new products. And yet it feels that so much more could be accomplished in the development phase if we could put our skills together.

Questions:

  1. What strategies could one use to make the product owners more interested in new product development (I thought maybe one could suggest high bonuses for first few sales of a completely new product)?
  2. Are there any other solutions (creating a completely new position is one I can think of) to this sort of problem?

Now, some of you might notice that as an engineer I am in no position to make changes. However, I was approached by my manager with a discussion about this topic. Thus, maybe I can make a suggestion. Or at least have a meaningful discussion with them.

Edit to add some clarifications:

  1. At this moment the product owners are indeed managers of sales teams. Truthfully, I am not really sure if this is the right way to call them. The direct translation from our language would be something like this: "a person who ordered the project" or "project customer". I don't believe such definition really reflects their role. Hence the "product owner". For now, they just basically have a strong vote in the approval of the project budget and provide predictions of expenditure vs. profit. They also do manage the sales of the new product after the product is finished.
  2. My manager, who is also the person that does the research and persuasion, has expressed concern with the situation described above. They do maybe 80 % or more of the described duties of a product owner in a chart of Bogdans answer. However the anticipation of clients needs is hardly covered. We are thinking that clients needs would best reflected to us by sales managers or product owners since they have the most exposure to clients and because their involvement in the project is so low. Maybe that assumption is wrong and sales people should be doing their own thing rather than being involved in the product development.
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  • Why is an engineer trying to tell a product owner which product he should want and why? It seems like your company structure is either confused or contradictory as to who precisely is the drive behind the products. Is your product owner just a salesperson? Are the engineers building things they want to build, on the belief that a market will be found?
    – Flater
    Oct 17 at 4:13

4 Answers 4

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I think you are confusing roles with accountabilities and responsibilities. Having someone named a Product Owner, or thinking about what benefits you could offer them, does not one a Product Owner make.

A true Product Owner does a lot of things. For example:

A chart showing all the different things a Product Owner does. DEFINING THE VISION: Keeps product in line with business goals; creates a product roadmap; communicates with stakeholders to understand business objectives. PRIORITIZES NEEDS: Juggles scope, budget, and time to prioritize projects; considers needs and objectives of stakeholders. MANAGING THE PRODUCT BACKLOG: Maps out dependencies; prioritizes items based on overall strategy; creates a list of backlog items. OVERSEEING DEVELOPMENT STAGES: Contributes to the planning, execution, and review of each sprint; works with team to refine and improve the development process. ANTICIPATING CLIENT NEEDS: Understands and anticipates client needs to manage the development process; has deep knowledge of the market; creates customer journey maps. ACTING AS PRIMARY LIASON: Gains buy-in from stakeholder; delivers clear instructions to the developers. EVALUATING PRODUCT PROGRESS: Is accountable for each stage of the development process and final process; inspects and evaluates product progress through each iteration; determines whether the final project is acceptable.

A Product Owner needs to be an actual owner. Then the above things fall under their reach. You don't seem to be describing a true Product Owner, but just someone involved in a project that has just a title that doesn't come packaged with the responsibility and accountability.

Firstly, the manager of engineer team researches the market and determines what new products might be needed [...] tries to persuade the product owners that this is a direction we want to move towards [...] one of the engineers is chosen as a manager of the project and starts to develop this new idea [...] they are only called product owners because they will be managing the sales of the product [...] they could do some more research on the evolution of the market and help us decide what projects are most beneficial to pursue.

All of these things are what a Product Owner does, maybe not by themselves alone, but with help from others, but they are involved in all of the product, not at the end as you describe it.

In fact, what you are describing is some sort of a staged approach. In the first stage I do this, then I hand it over to you for the next stage, and you hand it over to someone else for that stage, etc. until (your words) Hopefully, the project ends in a success and the company ends up with a new product at the end.

This looks like some sort of a traditional project management approach with separated responsibilities placed on different people, instead of an Agile one where a Product Owner takes ownership over the whole product.

So to get back to your question of how to motivate a Product Owner, well... it's complicated. It goes into the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. There is plenty of literature on the topic. The gist of it is that extrinsic motivation doesn't usually work, or works for a short period of time until the novelty of the reward fades. And extrinsic motivation does not work with knowledge workers. A true Product Owner is a knowledge worker.

So first you need real Product Owners. People that want to be owners of a product, not just have a job title and do some work on the product. Then you pay them enough so that salary is not an issue of complaint, you respect and support their decisions, and work to create a context in which they can have drive in the form of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

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To me this question is kind of inside-out...

Firstly, the manager of engineer team researches the market and determines what new products might be needed

This person is the product owner. They have identified a need that a new product might satisfy and should keep ownership of the development of that product, and be motivated by seeing their idea to fruition. For sure they should work with the sales team as representatives of potential customers to refine the requirements, but they should be the bridge.

The sales team (who seem to be referred to as product owners) presumably already get a commission/bonus based on sales and should be motivated by that to support development of products they can sell in the future. But if the person who does the initial research does not have capacity to do continue to be PO, a separate PO role is needed because sales is already a full time job with a different skill set from product definition.

Edit to address added info in question From what you describe in the edit, it sounds like your products are used by other businesses rather than consumers. In that case your sales people probably have a role in facilitating contact between your product development team and (potential) customers/users - because they have the contacts - so you can discuss what they would find useful, and can be part of building the business case because they are best placed to predict revenue, but ownership of the development should remain with the development team. Perhaps your sales team has identified that they sell to every widget company in your home market, and the gadget makers are keen at first but lose interest after initial discussions - sales' job is then to try to get the gadget makers and your product people together so you can understand their needs and work out if you can make something that they do want to buy. And they should be facilitating contact between your product team and the experienced users at the widget makers so you understand what they want most in the next version, to maintain your market position. Neither of these is a major imposition on their time and the prospect of future sales should be motivation enough.

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People who are managers of sales teams rarely have the time to be "product managers" of new developments. Their main emphasis is on making sales. Sorry, but nothing you do can motivate them away from that emphasis. That is how they get paid and how they compare themselves with others. Salespeople have a totally different mentality from the rest of the company. As one person said, "they even party differently."

Instead of expecting them to be part of the development team, expect them to occasionally be available to answer questions. The actual "product manager" needs to be someone who can focus on the development of the product so that it properly meets a market need. That person has to be spending a lot of time with the salespeople and customers to identify what the product should be and communicate that back to the developers. A developer can grow into such a position given time and motivation to value what salespeople do.

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Note: my answer uses lower case for "product owner" to indicate I'm not talking about the Scrum role but about the role as described in the question.

Sales people are typically motivated by bonuses that rise in proportion to their sales volume. If that's the case, they might resist changes because every minute they spend with you is a minute less that they can spend with a customer to close a deal.

I.e. to motivate them to listen, you'll have to plausibly explain to them how they will lose a few deals today, but how it will boost their sales afterwards.
The best approach for that would be an analysis of past sales failures that can be traced back to product owners not providing useful specifications; you'll habe to be extremely careful to not turn this into a fingerpointing session, e.g. pick examples where another product owner was involved, or some other tactics that takes the "we're accusing YOU" aspect out of the situation.

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