Agile lessons from the good Dr? Sure, why not? He wasn’t specifically writing for agile folks but there are lessons there… if you know where to look.
I was recently having lunch with a couple of project management peers and we were sitting at Austin Beer Garden and Brewing. Great place if you get the chance to go; don’t forget to try the helles! Well, we were sitting outside under the trees and they were doing some electrical work nearby; new floodlights I think. In the midst of some pretty in-depth agile discussions the conversation quickly jumped over to these beautiful red oak trees and someone asked, “Who speaks for the trees?” We all laughed at the pop culture reference but right then it hit me… the Lorax would have made a great product owner!
Now you’re probably wondering what was in that craft beer I was sipping and how many had I had, but this actually works out. If you remember back to pre-school and that wonderful book by Dr. Seuss (anyone who mentions that horrible, horrible movie will be shot on sight. Then shot again just for good measure.) you’ll remember that the Lorax didn’t appear until the Once-ler started chopping down Trufula trees to make thneeds out of. Good lord, my spell checker just died a little inside. His catch phrase was “I speak for the trees,” and he did. He spoke loud, he spoke often. He repeatedly reminded the Once-ler of the results of the decisions that the Once-ler had made. But he didn’t just speak, he took control where he could and even made the decisions to send away the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Swomee-Swans and the Humming-Fish as the environment became toxic for them.
All of this translates fairly well into the behavior of a really great Product Owner.
"Mister," he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
"I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I'm asking you sir, at the top of my lungs"-
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed-
What's that THING you've made out of my Trufula tuft?
First and foremost you HAVE to speak for your trees. In this analogy the trees are your product’s features, of course. You have to be invested enough to know how changing one feature will impact all the others. You have to be intimate with them and you have to protect them. No one else is in a similar situation where they are invested with protecting the product’s features. Your Scrum Master is invested with protecting the Scrum process and the builder team, but the features are all yours. So speak for them!
And let me preach here just for a bit. In many Scrum implementations the PO’s don’t actually OWN the product. They simply take orders from the stakeholders and translate those into user stories. This is wrong and is one key practice that can absolutely KILL Scrum. If you are a PO and you’re reading this remember - You are a Product OWNER, not a Product Caretaker. Own that baby! If your executive team is having a hard time letting you own the product then sit them down and talk with them. Tell them how Scrum relies on having one person with one vision making decisions on the product. Not just taking notes and translating those into user stories. Hire an intern to do that, if you have to. </preaching>
Second, the Lorax took enough charge to make decisions regarding several groups who depended on the trees for survival. He decided, no one else did, when the bears, swans and fish had to move on. If you stretch this analogy just a bit these three groups become the builder teams themselves. Now in the Scrum framework the PO may not be in charge of the builders, but quite often the actual implementation is that he is a team lead. And that’s ok, that won’t break Scrum at all.
Third, the Lorax spoke clearly and without fear. He faced down the Once-ler on several occasions. And while the Once-ler never listened to him he kept speaking regardless. This is fearless speaking on a whole new level. Unfortunately the analogy breaks down here a bit. Well, I hope it does! The Lorax (the PO) had a highly antagonistic relationship with the Once-ler who might be regarded as the stakeholders, either internal or external. I would caution against reading into that too far, unless of course you have a stakeholder group who keeps making really toxic decisions in which case you have a lot of work to do. Keep reminding them of what they are bringing into the environment and keep pushing for the best product you can.
All in all the qualities the Lorax would have brought to the PO role were great ones: clear, precise, fearless speaking coupled with sharp decision making. If you aren’t doing the same for your product then go to the library and re-read this classic to see where the lessons could apply to you.
And of course do something today to protect the environment!