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Meet the author: Don McGreal

Hannah Willis // October 18, 2018
Industry

Vice President of Learning Solutions, Don McGreal has long been a foundational member of Improving’s culture and team. While helping to organize and coordinate training across all of Improving’s offices, Don also teaches Scrum.org certification classes extensively throughout North America. 

In addition to Don’s many titles VP, Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Scrum.org Course Steward, Husband, Father, and proud Canadian, another one has recently been added, Author.

Teaming up with Ralph Jocham, with whom he also redesigned the Scrum.org Product Owner Certification Course, Don wrote the recently published book “The Professional Product Owner: Leveraging Scrum as a Competitive Advantage

Read on for the lightly edited transcript of our interview. 

HW: What keeps you excited about working at Improving?

DM: In 18 years, I’ve had two jobs, I’ve worked for two companies, but I’ve had hundreds of gigs within that time. Here my job is completely different every single week. I’m with a different client, a different problem. I love teaching and coaching. I like the short time periods of what I do. I like the life of a consultant, so when I’m switching off to different jobs, I have the possibility to try different things while sticking with one company. I could teach independently, but it would just be me. I wouldn’t be building something with people I love and respect. Improving is family to me.

HW: What’s the relationship between Improving and Scrum.org? 

Improving is the largest trainer for Scrum.org classes in North America. Scrum.org has been a huge partner of ours and a great channel. People sign up for our public Scrum certification classes through them and then find out about our consulting and coaching. Ken Schwaber is the co-creator of Scrum, the owner of Scrum.org, and he wrote the foreword to the book. This book is a part of the “Professional Series” by Scrum.org and Pearson (Addison-Wesley) publishing.

"I could teach independently, but it would just be me. I wouldn’t be building something with people I love and respect. Improving is family to me."

HW: Is this your first book?

DM: It’s the third attempt. Just getting organized enough to write a book was the hard part. Ralph and I both teach and maintain the Professional Scrum Product Owner course for Scrum.org around the same topic. I’ve taught that class a lot in North America and Ralph has taught it a lot in Europe. We noticed a lot of trends in what we were getting asked by individuals and companies in our classes and consulting gigs. So, we had a good understanding of the needs that were out there for product ownership. Why not write a book? 

 

HW: When did you and Ralph find time to write this book? How long did it take to write? 

DM: That was hard. Ralph and I both travel and teach a lot. I taught over 50 classes last year and Ralph taught over 70! I’d write by myself at night in hotel rooms, on planes, and then on the weekends we would get together over Skype. We created a cadence of almost every week. I even had a baby during all of this, but almost every week we would get together for a few hours on Google Docs. We would literally be writing together at the same time. His cursor would be right behind me fixing and adding words and then I’d be right behind him. At the end of every meeting we’d plan our next call. We numbered each one and by the end I think we had something like 76 calls, each at least a couple of hours long. 

It took about a year and a half of writing and almost 2 years from ‘hey let’s write a book’ to it’s in the stores. There was definitely a gap between ‘hey let’s write’ to when we really got serious.

HW: So much of this book’s praise comes from how clear and understandable the concepts are. Was that a big focus for each of you?

DM: Probably because we’re teachers that was something we put a lot of emphasis on. Even though the editors told us not to worry about it, I think I spent more time than I probably should have from a grammatical standpoint. But we’re teachers. We’ve figured out the best ways to say it, the best explanations, the analogies that resonate more, which ones don’t work, which ones work better. After hundreds and hundreds of classes with this particular topic, we’ve kind of figured out how people best learn this topic. But there is so much that you just can’t get to in a two-day class and over the years you pick up even more, so to effectively manage a class you have to sacrifice content. A book like this is a great way to put it all together. Now in my classes I have the ability to say “just read this book for more information.”

HW: What do you think sticks out in your mind as the best thing that’s happened from writing this book?

 DM: It’s always been a bucket list thing, to be able to get all of the stuff in my head on to paper and out into the world. There’s something rewarding about putting all of your thoughts out there into something that will be around forever. It’s also very scary, I was so worried people would think it was crap.

The other thing I found very very rewarding was that I got to think about this subject in another way. When Ralph and I would talk through topics, interesting ideas would pop up. For example, the book revolves around three main things that a product owner needs to do: they need to establish and communicate a vision, they need to be focused on maximizing Return On Investment (ROI), and they need to test their ideas. So, we came up with Vision, Value and Validation, the three Vs of Product Ownership. That’s not something we ever explicitly said during a class before and we wouldn’t have gotten there without the book. Now we use it all the time and it’s an explicit part of the Scrum.org courseware. Just the act of writing this book made us better at teaching.

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Don's new book in action. Both authors wrote the book with seasoned and rookie Product Owners in mind.

HW: So in this context, does Value always mean Profits?

DM: Value isn’t as easy to define as you would think. Is it profit? Is it happy customers? Is it cost? What is it? The way I get to the bottom of it, when I ask ‘Why’ enough, is that ultimately it comes down to which context you’re looking at it. If you’re a person, the value is different than if you’re an organization. I think most people would agree that for an individual, value is more than money. But if value to a person isn’t money, what is it? Some say it’s more time with family, so is that what creates value? Does everyone find spending time with their family valuable? When I ask ‘why’ enough times, and I’ve done this so many times in class, somebody will eventually say ‘it makes me happy’ and that’s what we’re all after-- happiness, and that can be hard to describe. Happiness means different things to different people. And the Product Owner needs to understand the people they’re building for and how to make them happy. However, you can have the happiest customers in the world and not have a valuable product. If my product was a button and every time it’s pushed it spits out 50 dollars, I’d have very happy customers, but I wouldn’t have a business. For a person, it’s happiness, for a for-profit organization it’s money. They might say ‘we want to make people happy’ but if you can’t sustain your business then nobody will be happy. Then there’s non-profits, like governments and charities, which we work with all the time. They have product owners, they have products, but for them money isn’t the goal. If they had a bunch of money but didn’t improve society that would actually produce negative value. Remember a few years ago when we were all dumping ice water over our heads? The ALS Association had a record year. They made a crazy amount of money, but does that mean they brought value? Not necessarily. If nothing changed in the world of ALS and they made all that money it would be the opposite of value. For them creating value was promoting early detection, financing more trial drugs, continuing their goal of curing ALS. That’s value to the ALS community. Money enables that value, but it isn’t the end goal. 

"Happiness means different things to different people. And the Product Owner needs to understand the people they’re building for and how to make them happy."

The big reason for writing the book is that Product Ownership is a huge problem in our industry. Think of a small start-up where every employee has ownership in the company. They’re all in a room and their lives depend on its success. Those individuals have a unique level of creativity, work ethic, and passion. Why? Because they’re so close to the Vision and the Value. If they don’t create Value, they don’t have jobs, they can’t put food on the table. They naturally want to Validate. They can’t just build something for two years and cross their fingers. That’s way too risky. They’re looking for ways to test with real customers as early as possible. Small companies inherently know this stuff, but big companies building complex products, products that are only getting more and more complex, they might not. We have clients in the energy field, in the oil sector, they’re building oil rigs and complex plans, this applies to them. HR departments, coming up with new plans for their massive company, this applies to them. Sales, selling complex service offerings to lots of people, this applies to them. 

 

Losing sight of the overall vision and just going through the motions day by day, that’s what we call the Product Management Vacuum. An excellent Product Owner operates in a way that their team members don’t go home at night and say “I build databases.” They say, “I’m building a product that saves lives” or “I’m building software to get accountants home in time for dinner on payroll days.” They understand why they’re building something. This book is all about filling the vacuum the right way with the 3 Vs so that everyone understands what they’re doing (vision), why they’re doing it (value), and that they’re on the right track (validation). 

HW: How long until your next book?

DM: Ralph and I joke that it’s kind of like we have a child together, that this is our baby and we’ll always be linked because of it. Even though this was incredibly hard, it was a really cool experience. Ralph and I are really close friends now and it’s because of this book. Maybe I would write another book if another topic came up that I was passionate about, but I’m not in a hurry. At least now I can cross it off my bucket list.

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