Should a CPO write User Stories?

Evaluating Their Role and Contributions

Working as a fractional CPO can present unique challenges. How do you create impact for what is often a more strategic remit if the organisation is small and you find yourself being the main ‘product person’? Is the CPO salutation apt due to the tasks expected at this level when tactical execution might take priority? Whilst I believe that product managers under a CPO or Head of Product should write user stories, there are instances where this may flex.

User stories are integral to Agile and Scrum methodologies, offering a user-centric approach to articulating software requirements. These succinct narratives enable teams to develop solutions that meet user needs effectively. Yet, a significant question arises in product development: Should Chief Product Officers (CPOs) be directly involved in writing user stories, or should they delegate this task to the product managers they supervise? In this blog post, we’ll delve into the significance of user stories, explore the role of CPOs in crafting them, and examine real-world examples to provide insights into this important decision.

Understanding User Stories

User stories are concise, user-focused descriptions of a software feature, typically following the template: “As a [type of user], I want [an action] so that [benefit/value].” These narratives illuminate the user’s context, needs, and desired outcomes.

The Significance of User Stories

1. User-Centric Focus: User stories shift the emphasis from technical specifications to user needs, promoting a user-centred approach to product development.

2. Effective Communication: User stories offer a clear and concise means of conveying requirements, reducing misunderstandings and ambiguities within the development team.

3. Prioritisation: They facilitate the prioritisation of features based on user importance, ensuring that the most valuable features are developed first.

4. Adaptability: User stories accommodate changes in response to evolving user needs, making them an excellent fit for Agile development.

5. Collaboration: Crafting user stories fosters collaboration among product managers, developers, designers, and other stakeholders, promoting a shared understanding of the product vision.

Should Chief Product Officers Write User Stories?

I put this question to some CPO colleagues and the response was unanimous – 90% of those asked believed that CPOs should not write user stories. Before delving into some of the discussion I’ve outlined the main remit of a CPO below to set the context.

1. Strategic Oversight: CPOs possess a holistic view of the product strategy and market dynamics. Their involvement in crafting user stories can ensure that these stories align with the overarching product vision, effectively connecting individual features to the broader context.

2. Empowering Product Managers: While CPOs can initiate user stories, a more effective approach is to empower and guide product managers in this process. This enables product managers to develop a deeper understanding of user needs and an increased sense of ownership over the product.

3. Balancing Responsibilities: CPOs often have a wide range of strategic responsibilities, including market research, stakeholder engagement, and high-level decision-making. Directly writing user stories may not be the best use of their time, but they can provide critical input and guidance.

Discussion and Literature

In “Product Leadership” by Richard Banfield, Martin Eriksson, and Nate Walkingshaw the various aspects of product leadership, including the roles of CPOs and product managers are covered. The book emphasizes that product managers are responsible for defining user stories and maintaining a strong connection with the development team.

If you trawl through this topic in the Mind the Product community (Mind the Product is a popular product management community that hosts conferences, webinars, and forums) you’ll find discussions on their platform that often touch upon the roles and responsibilities of CPOs and product managers. The emphasis is on product managers owning this aspect of the product development process

In discussions with my peers, whilst most of us agreed that product managers under CPOs should write user stories, we also spoke of ‘walking in the shoes of your team’. I’m a firm believer in leading by example and so occasionally I’ll dip into MANY aspects of product development / management. This may even include writing the odd user story or at least collaborating with the devs / QA / product managers. I also am passionate about product design and UX so will often jump into Figma to convey ideas and concepts.

However, a CPO is a leader and should not be the main executor – they should nurture and run a team that is able to execute on the product vision and strategy. Every organisation is different and whilst I believe in collaboration and being able to straddle the high level and tactical, the ultimate efficiencies gained by strong PMs outweigh the time needed for product leaders to try to attack all fronts.