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20 September 2016

Catherine Howe

Strong product ownership: the bridge between old and new digital transformation

The definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result – if we really want to drive transformation we have to adopt new models of working.

In a digital and networked world, the answer to that challenge is often to 'go agile' but while that's often true it's also not enough.

Agile is not a new method (it has been 15 years since the agile manifesto was published and this stood on the shoulders of a number of nimble and iterative development methods) but it's been widely adopted recently because of its ability to deal with complexity, move at pace and adapt to changing contexts. The fact that it’s been championed by the Government Digital Service (who have demonstrated some great transformational outcomes with it) has also helped.

But adopting agile on its own is not enough. One of the most important things to understand about agile is that it's more than just a development process – done properly it's also a change in culture, governance and decision making. This makes the interface between agile and your mainstream decision making crucial, creating a new model of working.

Crucially this requires ending the illusion that big digital programmes will ever be finished. Instead we need to move to an organisational model which can have bursts of activity on a specific project or programme but then still retains a digital capability which can continue to evolve the project at a more organic pace.

Simply capping an agile programme with the governance and structure of a more linear fixed term transformation approach doesn’t achieve this shift to an ongoing digital capability because it assumes that much of the programme resource will disappear at the end of the fixed programme window.

One simple way of doing this is by embedding the concept of product ownership into the programme and ensuring that this role holds key governance responsibilities both within the programme and afterwards with the new digital capability. Whole books can (and have) been written about product ownership but, put simply, the product owner is responsible for three things: the interface between technical and non-technical teams, the roadmap and ‘vision’ for the product, and detailed prioritisation and agreeing tradeoffs between that vision and the needs of the larger programme.

Big transformation programmes can feel unwieldy and inflexible to the agile practitioner but product owners can bridge the gaps between old and new ways of working. They can translate the needs of the business to the technical teams and translate back the fact that technology projects don’t always travel in a straight line. It is a small change but the reward after the programme has ended is a product owner embedded in the business who has a deep understanding of the digital tools you are reliant on.

In Capita’s experience, product owners are best drawn from the core business area that a programme is working on and provided with the skills and tools they need to refocus their practitioner knowledge within this new way of working. This is an approach that Capita has been introducing across a number of our local government partnerships, and we’re beginning to see tangible results that unlock real value for our partners.

This is just one small change and others are needed; but by approaching large scale transformation with a digital mindset and not just a list of digital tools these big programmes can be a route to real organisational transformation.

This was first published by techUK as part of its Local Government Transformation campaign. Join the discussion on #techUKlocalgov

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Catherine Howe

Digital innovation director, Capita

Catherine is an expert in how communities embrace digital innovation, be it in smart cities, digital democracy or social change. She has over 15 years’ experience, throughout the UK and Europe, looking at how new technologies can best benefit individuals and communities and how the Networked Society can prosper from the coming innovations that will impact where and how we live and work. Working across the public sector she is currently helping deliver projects such as the ground breaking NHS Citizen initiative as well as digital leadership programmes within local government.

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