From Apprehensive to Agile: My Journey in Product Ownership

November 16, 2022


Christina Hartikainen

My boss called me into his office one morning to tell me about this new project we were taking on. He told me I would be working on the project with a team of contractors. After giving me an overview of the project and the team, he said, “They use agile for software development. You’re going to be the Product Owner. You need to figure out what that means and come back and tell the rest of us.”

I’d heard of agile before from a couple of people who were new to our organization, but I had no idea what a Product Owner was or what that meant. I had no idea how that one conversation would dramatically change the trajectory of my career.

So I sat down to figure out what this agile thing was all about. I talked to the contractor team and my new teammates, started searching the internet, and picked up some books. There was so much to learn, and this was a huge change from how I had worked before.

Once I built some fundamental understanding of agile, it was time to take a class on product ownership. The class opened my eyes to so many things, not just about product ownership, but learning in general. Most of the classes I’d taken in my adult life were focused on lecturing over slides while this… this class taught some theory and then made space for us to practice and apply it. I needed both the theory and the hands-on experience to crystallize how to bring these concepts and practices back to the organization.

Coaching Opens New Doors

After making a case to my boss for why we needed help, he finally agreed to bring in a coach. The coach came in a couple of times for a few days at a time and since this was my idea, it was my job to take care of all the details and work closely with him. I soaked up every minute and every bit of knowledge I could from him.

It was through working with our coach that I finally got the confidence to truly let go of the specification document and trust our team to figure things out together. Now we focused on figuring out how to solve challenges or meet our customers’ needs together. I was able to let go of the need to know every detail, and the pressure that comes with that, and embrace the creative collaboration of our team to discover new solutions.

Working with our coach showed me that we needed stronger facilitation and mentoring in our organization. One of the project managers I worked with had a firm position that the facilitator was the boss of the meeting. Their job was to come to the meeting with all the answers and decisions made. The purpose of the meeting was for everyone else to get on board with their decisions. Before working with our coach, I had a hard time putting my finger on why these meetings were so frustrating and demoralizing; now I knew not only why but also that there were other ways.

Christina on stage at the Agile2019 conference.
Christina on stage at the Agile2019 conference.

Learning from the Larger Agile Community

Our coach also introduced me to the larger agile community. He asked if I wanted to volunteer as a reviewer for the Agile2012 conference. Part of me was concerned about doing this since I was so new to agile. What could I offer to people submitting to speak at a conference?

The chance to learn from other people and a desire to be involved in the community made me say yes. The review team valued my perspective of advocating for sessions that were relevant to people new to agile.

Through this volunteer work, I saw and experienced agility in action that I could bring back to my own practices and team. Reading through the product-related submissions exposed me to new ideas, insights, and perspectives that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. This was my first conference volunteer experience and far from my last. The learnings, the community, and the need to pay this experience forward, kept me saying yes to volunteering year after year, as well as seeking out other opportunities to get involved.

Growing as a Product Owner

The foundation was in place for me to keep building on what it meant to be a product owner. Our next product was a proof of concept, something unheard of in this organization before. I started with a vision for the product that was built by working with our team and stakeholders. We used that vision throughout the proof-of-concept development to ensure that the steps we were taking aligned with that vision.

I built a lightweight backlog of features—no big specification documents here—and as a team, we broke down the highest priority items into smaller stories. Through conversation with the team, we worked out the details of what needed to be done, and in a short amount of time, we were able to prove our original hypothesis for the product. It was quick, it was collaborative, and it was so much fun. Sure there were still plenty of bumps in the road: in moving away from too much detail, sometimes there wasn’t enough information; some of the things we tried didn’t work, so we had to try again; and our meetings still weren’t facilitated effectively, but none of that was insurmountable.

Christina and other members of the Agile2019 Program Team celebrate after creating the program for the conference.
Christina and other members of the Agile2019 Program Team celebrate after creating the program for the conference.

Invest in Continuous Learning and People Who Support it

My early days in product ownership highlighted the importance of continuous learning. When I first started, I needed to develop a fundamental understanding of agile. That understanding showed me that I needed to learn more about the basics of product ownership, which then kick-started a need to learn about facilitation and mentoring. That unlocked a need to explore more in product ownership and in agility in general.

There were a number of people who made this journey possible. My boss pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to do more. My team provided a space to try, fail, and learn together while holding me accountable to not slide back into old habits. The coach helped me build the confidence I needed to step up to challenges and opened new doors that I didn’t know existed. It was up to me to recognize the opportunities to learn and grow and keep on saying yes to them regardless of how uncomfortable they made me. Even now I’m still learning, still trying, and failing and learning and trying again.

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Agile Project and Delivery Management, Product Ownership, Agile Product Ownership

About the author

Christina Hartikainen | ICAgile, Director of Learning
Christina joined ICAgile in 2019 as the Director of Agile Learning. In this role, she's working with the ICAgile team to advance the state of agile learning globally. Christina worked in some fascinating businesses including government agencies, oil and gas companies, and policing. Over the past 20+ years, she's held roles in testing, development, IT management, business analysis, product ownership, training, facilitating, and guiding organizational change.