Product Owners: prune and let it go.

Almond Blossom — Vincent Van Gogh (circa 1890)


When I was in college, as an architect-to-be, most of my focus was charged towards Project and Drawing classes. Those were very appealing to me and to all those who wanted to be at the standard rockstar architecture office or even trying the path to become the founder of one.

However, every now and then I jumped into a class outside of that focus that brought me something else, something that was not in that known and safe path of the standard architect. A bunch of them suck — this is college and experimenting is part of the process, it was normal to not like the taste of some— , but sometimes an amazing teacher would swoop in and give us the ball in one of those classes. And one of those guys was Sérgio, our “Botanical Studies” teacher.

I can't state how much of a unique figure he was. 6' tall, big red nose, grizzly and shaggy bearded, dressed as a fisherman, he would come into the room with a thunder of a voice and giant blue crossed eyes… I think you can comprehend how impossible it was to not notice this guy. He was the sweetest, he loved bringing students outside to touch, look and feel nature. Yeap. He was one of those tree huggers, you got it.

I developed a good relationship with him. I admired his love for nature and how he managed to be such an authentic man (considering how much of an outcast he was in the middle of his architecture Corbusier-fancy-pants peers that dressed — and act — like Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread). He even asked me some help with his eye drop medicine after class. Man, he was a great dude.

Ok. By now I’ve already digressed enough. The thing is… One of these days I was thinking about business and one story Sérgio told in class stroke me like lightning and I could remember his rumbling voice telling it.

Sérgio was teaching us about how trees grow and how important it was to prune them properly. He said trees, depending on their type, grow in a certain way that we can predict. However, there are times that nature does not go by the book and things can go out of hand if we don’t step in.

Imagine a tree, that has a steep and fast growth, and that by some luck grows a branch to the side right when she was young. A beautiful branch. It grows strong and big and it opens wide like a Schwarzenegger arm flex. That branch comes to deliver leaves, flowers, and even fruits. Since it grew sideways, its fruits are hanging low, its flowers can be seen up close, and the branch works beautifully as a bench where you could sit.

With time, that branch starts to weigh the tree and its natural vertical growth starts going diagonal. The weight builds up and you come to realize that if we don’t do something, the tree will go down. But you love and cherish that branch, it provides a lot to you and so you decide to wait.

The branch grows further and further, and now the tree is in serious danger. Damn, it might even fall over your house! OK, there’s no way to delay this anymore. You call a guy and the branch goes down. It was a tough call, but you had to, right? However, you now can see that the tree is still in that diagonal pattern of growth, and leaves start going gold and red. As time passes, the leaves fall and unfortunately the tree has to be put down.

Wow, that is one sad old story. Imagine the privilege of hearing it from Sérgio.

And that’s where I go back to business. It is so hard to notice when you, as a Product Owner, are letting a harmful branch grow in the roadmap. You have to see many trees grow before sorting out what are the good and the bad branches. Of course, a product is not a tree, but we got to give Sérgio some credit here. Developing the skill of knowing how a product should grow is one of the most challenging and beautiful ones a Product Owner goes through in his path.

The fruits of a sideways branch might be hanging low, it might look good and easy to work with this. But a good Product Owner should learn what is the main and expected growth of a product and what will be a digression. She should have a keen eye and challenge assumptions. Sometimes building those easy kick win features that provide fast value won't help the product to grow further. Those must be cut and pruned from the project — or at least, duly noted and left for later.

Product Owners: prune. Stay open and try developing a sixth-sense around the possibility that the scope that you passed through hours of discovery, design and maybe even CODED, might be harming the project. Let go. That is part of the job too.

Post dedicated to Sérgio Luiz de Carvalho Leite, wherever he might be right now. Thanks for being who you are. 🍃




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