What makes a good product owner?

Transforming user needs into well-written user stories is just a small fraction of all the responsibilities, traits and skills that come with being an outstanding product owner.

Unquestionably, being a product owner is a daunting role and mastering the profession requires well-developed abilities in many areas. As their role is fundamental for successful agile teams, we want to highlight five of the most important areas where a great product owner should excel in.

Misinterpretation of the product owner role

First, it's important to clear out a few things as there are various fallacies about what product owners should do.

For example, a common but flawed interpretation of a product owner's job is that their responsibility is to collect stakeholder requirements and transform them into well-specified product backlog items that the team can use to develop an appropriate solution. At the end of the sprint, the product owner inspects that the product increment developed by the development team meets the specified requirements.

Wrong.

What are the problems with this description?

1.) It implies that it is the client's job to define the characteristics and the features of the desired solution and that the PO's duty is to accurately record what the customers say.

Why is this wrong?

Because in practice, customers usually have minimal skills in defining solution details and requirements. What they can typically explain is not what the outcome should be but their pains and desires. They have no experience to elicit and define requirements in a precise way. It's actually extremely hard to understand and define the solution that satisfies their needs upfront.

Often, latent requirements come to the surface only when customers first try the solution built upon their initial demands.

Researching, imagining, and ultimately designing the best feasible solution is a collaborative and joint effort between the stakeholders and the development team.

The primary role of the product owner is to foster constructive, purpose-driven communication between stakeholders and the development team that can lead to a shared understanding of what stakeholders need and what is feasible within the given constraint of the project.

Sometimes, both stakeholders and developers are reluctant to talk to each other due to their different background, their limitations of time, or just because they find the discussions too slow or overwhelming. The PO's job is not to transport the information between developers and stakeholders, but to connect them and help them overcome the communication barriers so that they can get a shared understanding of what needs to be built and why, as well as what are the possible options to actually build the solution.

2.) It implies that it is the product owners' job to transform stakeholder needs into ready-made detailed solution requirements for the development team.

No, the product owner is not in charge of defining the requirements on her own. She involves many people in this process, often members of the development team.

It's OK for a product owner to explore stakeholder requirements earlier than the rest of the team, but it's a misconception that a PO is in charge of setting all the requirements for them.

Instead, the PO's job is to empathize with the pains and needs of the stakeholders and act as a representative of those needs in the team. In hindsight, the PO is not the one that defines the requirements but makes the underlying needs and pains clear and facilitates the discussions within the teams to unearth the requirements that should be met.

The product owner might be the one who leads the requirement discovery effort, but she is not there to present ready-made requirements for the team.

3.) It implies that the product owner is separated from the development team.

The Product Owner is a whole-hearted member of an agile team, not a client of the developers.

The product owner's job is not to place orders for the development team and accept or reject the solution delivered by the team. Instead, she should work closely with the team members to ensure that they are equipped with the necessary understanding of the requirements and the underlying needs behind them, so that they can make proper implementation decisions when needed.

Skills of a great product owner

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, being a product owner could be overwhelming. Actually, to be an ideal product owner, one should be kind of a jack of all trades and encompass the traits of all the following roles:

  • Leader. The product owner has a vision about the end product and can communicate it in an inspiring way. She can win and inspire developers and stakeholders, so they don't just want to survive the project, but actually thrive on building the envisioned product and seeing it live. She can also make decisions when conflicting requirements or diverse concepts arise from different stakeholders.
  • Facilitator. Building a successful solution is a joint effort of all stakeholders, including the client, users, developers, and managers. Each group has its different expertise, skills, and valuable contribution to the project. They also have varying - sometimes even conflicting - expectations and desires.

    An ideal Product Owner is a great facilitator who can bridge the gap between different stakeholder groups by facilitating communication, developing compromises, and coming up with novel ideas that can resolve conflicts.

    The best way to build a shared understanding is by assessing and discussing the experience of using the working product. The product owner should always facilitate early and frequent delivery of working product increments to shorten the feedback loop between the stakeholders and developers.

  • Solution architect. To effectively facilitate discussions and make educated decisions, the product owner needs to understand the different aspects and cross-effects of those aspects towards the product.

    Imagine the following situation:

    The team discovers that new users often leave the product because they find the initial user experience is too overwhelming. To improve the onboarding experience of new users, the team could make the ‘xy' feature simpler. However, existing expert users require the advanced capabilities of this feature. A solution might be to introduce the complexity of the feature gradually, as users advance in navigating through the product. However, making the feature "polymorph" - that it works differently for different users - will increase the development and maintenance cost of future development efforts.

    Here, the problem includes aspects of user experience, business, and technology. What is product management

    As Martin Ericsson described in his article, "What exactly is the product manager?" the product owner should develop a sufficient level of understanding in the user experience, business requirements, and technical aspects of the product. Ideally, she should have a deep knowledge of at least one of these areas.

  • Guard. As Henrik Knieberg explains in his excellent video "Agile product ownership in a nutshell", every feature a team delivers generates new ideas and new desires from stakeholders. It's simply impossible to satisfy all the ideas that emerge during the project. It is the product owner's job to ensure that all stakeholders understand that there are limitations to the teams' capacity and that many ideas need to be skipped. In Henrik Knieberg's words, "the product owner's job is to figure out that of all possible stories in the whole universe, which four to six stories shall the team deliver next."
  • Fund manager. We like to think of a product owner as a fund manager. A fund manager's goal is to select the best stock portfolio to invest in and maximize revenue while minimizing risk. Product owners are faced with many ideas and requests to invest. The team has limited resources and the product owner has to select the best choices from the infinite options (delight existing users, impress new users, improve usability, add more features, and so on) to strategically invest the team's resources in a way that it maximizes the value of the investment.

To summarize, it's important to know and understand what the responsibilities of a product owner truly are instead of limiting the role to story creation and explanation. As you've been able to see, there's a lot more to product ownership than we can imagine.

It may look like the product owner must be a super-human. However, mastering this role is not an impossible task. The key is to understand that product owners are not only story creators, but also facilitators and successful communicators that highly value the importance of teamwork and transmit a deep understanding of the different aspects of the solution.

Published on August 17, 2020

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