Shokunin

Does a product owner “own” the product? If so, what do you call the team members who write the code, configure the platform, test it, and deliver it to the grateful paying public? Sharecroppers, perhaps? Those folks who lived on someone else’s land and provided free labor for a share of the crops, after their expenses were deducted, of course? Even though I learned social studies from the high school baseball coach, I recall that sharecroppers were not the most empowered members of society at the time.

Sure, that’s an extreme analogy, and most product owners are not the equivalent of an exploitive land owner. But as a wise man named Raj once said, “Words mean things.” When we name one team member the product owner, that means the team does not own the product. By now you know I believe in an empowered team. Taken literally, the term ‘product owner’ offends me. The product owner does NOT own the product.

Words mean things. Raj, 2011

So which words more accurately reflect the role of the team member who has primary responsibility for researching and proposing products, features, and changes to both? Product Steward? Product Nurturer? Bonsai master?

A bonsai master is someone who practices the art of bonsai. Most of you probably know that the bonsai is a container-grown plant that is artfully groomed and pruned to look like a miniature version of a full-size specimen. Bonsai are prized for their aesthetics and bonsai masters are praised for their patience and artistry. Prized bonsai trees can be hundreds of years old.

There are many parallels between practicing bonsai and building software products. Consider the analogies:

Growth

If allowed to grow unrestrained, then the plant will quickly outgrow the nutrients in the soil of its container.

A product that only adds features and never takes anything away may stray from its original niche and no longer solve the problem(s) it originally solved. Also, the growth of the product may outgrow the ability of the team to maintain existing features and deliver new functionality. Grow the team? Sure, why not? But are you neglecting your original customer base that nurtured your early growth? You solved a problem for those first customers - nurture them.

Balance

If pruned haphazardly or wired in the wrong direction, then the plant will be improperly balanced, both physically and aesthetically.

We’ve all seen the Franken-product. The product with the shiny new front-end hiding an underpowered database or legacy admin pages (only the admin sees those pages, right?). MMMM, Guress what - those admins often make purchase recommendations. Or what about your beta feature that implements a slick new component that causes withdrawal shakes when the user goes back to your old interface? Big leaps are sometimes necessary, but consider that baby steps - delivered quickly - all around lead to a better experience for the user.

If your market or product seems to require a huge leap, consider releasing an entirely new product! Why not just start from scratch again? Let the sage, well-tended product continue to grow gracefully, while you start new growth in a new pot.

Fit

Nurture the right plant.

Not all plants are suited to the careful tending that produces the beauty of the bonsai. Some grow too fast, while some grow branches that are heavy with blooms and fruit that will warp the intended shape.

Just like choosing the right plant, product owners need to build the right product. Finding that sweet spot means you might sometimes fail - when that happens, throw it away and start over - don’t keep trying to force the wrong plant to grow in your pot.

Shokunin

Shokunin is a japanese term that means mastery of a profession or craft - roughly translating to craftsmanship or artisanship. The long path to mastery of bonsai is an example of shokunin. The short film, American Shokunin, is a beautiful introduction to the timeless and beautiful art of bonsai and the shokunin required to reach master levels.

A software product is not a work of art, and most of the work we do will not last 10 years, much less hundreds. We can still approach our work with shokunin rather than a sense of ownership.

Credit to James Holmes for this idea. Don’t know James? He’s an awesome front-end developer and a pretty smart guy overall. You can see his work on Codepen.

Bonsai infographic; what is bonsai and how do I start?
Courtesy of: Bonsai Empire