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How to Be an Effective Product Owner

Every role on a Scrum team is important, but in many ways the effectiveness of the team’s Product Owner is the biggest determining factor in whether the team will deliver value. It doesn’t matter how talented the developers and Scrum Master are if their Product Owner tells them to build the wrong things. The job […]

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June 07, 2023

Every role on a Scrum team is important, but in many ways the effectiveness of the team’s Product Owner is the biggest determining factor in whether the team will deliver value.

It doesn’t matter how talented the developers and Scrum Master are if their Product Owner tells them to build the wrong things. The job of Product Owner requires a unique blend of skills, mindset, and knowledge that don’t often map to traditional roles in an organization.

So, what does it take be a great Product Owner?

 

1.   You know the product domain better than anyone else.

To be a great Product Owner, you must have a clear understanding of the overall vision for what the team is trying to accomplish.

Of course, no one is born knowing all of this or having all of these relationships in place. An effective Product Owner is a person who is best positioned to build that domain knowledge quickly and create the connections that will let them answer these questions swiftly. A toolbox full of critical visioning, negotiating, and facilitation techniques won’t hurt either.

 

2.   You’ve got the authority to make choices.

Product Owners must be able to respond quickly when feedback suggests new opportunities to deliver value, or when we learn that a current approach isn’t working. No matter how much backlog refinement is done before starting a Sprint, teams will still discover crucial questions during the work that couldn’t be anticipated prior.

If a Product Owner isn’t given the authority to quickly make a choice without going through multiple levels of permission seeking from higher-ups, the team will end up waiting and wasting time. The greater the autonomy and authority granted to the Product Owner, the greater their potential to benefit the results delivered. In the worst of all possible worlds, we see people designated as Product Owners but given no ability to make decisions. When that happens, they aren’t really ‘owning’ any solution or outcome and instead just function as “order takers”, charged with orchestrating requirements handed down from on high into to a sprint-like rhythm.

Ideally, the Product Owner should have full authority over product vision. This means up to and including the decision to cancel a product if it becomes clear that it won’t ever deliver value. At a minimum, Product Owners should have absolute authority over product vision and the prioritization of the team’s work for at least a release’s worth of time. If the surrounding organization is uncomfortable with that, we can generally offset those concerns by pointing to the extreme transparency of the role.

If a Product Owner isn’t making good choices about what to build in what order, everyone will be able to see that early and often. Great Product Owners can support that transparency with techniques that clarify their plans to deliver, make plain the assumptions they’re trying to validate, their frameworks for prioritizing work, and real-time measurement of outcomes.

 

3.   You’re willing to use that authority to make choices.

Having the authority isn’t enough by itself, you’ve also got to be willing to use it! Unfortunately, some organizations surrounding the team are risk intolerant or, worse, have a decision-making culture that is primarily fear-based and centered in avoiding blame. In this case, the people they tend to pick for positions of authority tend to be those that would rather do nothing than make a ‘wrong’ choice. A Product Owner that won’t make choices isn’t serving their team, their organization, or their stakeholders.

That means that you can be ruthless about questioning prioritization and backlog refinement. Consider these thoughts:

Great Product Owners are able to make these decisions – and defend them! As a Product Owner, you can defend your choices with visualizations that link long term outcomes to nearer term impacts to current work in the team’s backlog, with techniques to rank critical assumptions, and by constant communication within teams to understand the implications of existing risk in the structures they’re creating.

 

4.   You can tackle big questions with empiricism.

This doesn’t mean that to be a Product Owner you have to be reckless. It’s not a great idea to take wild bets on new ideas or commit to a particular thought long after it’s clear to everyone that it won’t pay off.  Product Owners that behave this way quickly find that their teams become burned out and their stakeholders become confused and frustrated.

One of the core benefits of Agile frameworks like Scrum is that they are rooted in empiricism. Great Product Owners wield the pillars of empirical process control (transparency, inspection, and adaptation) like weapons to carve vision out of the noisy feedback and conflicting priorities.

To think empirically means that a great Product Owner can look at large risks, questions, or uncertainties, and distill them down to small, least-risk experiments. Those actions commit the least possible time and effort of a team to learn. The Product Owner then uses that learning to adapt their plan to move forward.

Should we make or buy a particular part of the solution? An empirical thinker would ask, “What’s the smallest proof-of-concept the team could try to see if we’re able to build our own?” and then structure a decision based on the result of that Sprint.

Did you just receive 400 new requirements requests from an important group of stakeholders? An empirical thinker would ask, “What is smallest viable set of these we build and present to users to get feedback on whether they actually serve our value goals?”

Great Product Owners use empirical product discovery to direct product based on short experiments, prioritizing explicit product domain learning all along the journey.

 

Want some help growing into Product Owner skills and mindsets?

Accredited training from an expert is a good place to start. If you’re brand new to a Product Owner role, but you’ve never managed product development before or you’re new to Scrum, a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) is a great place to get your feet under you.

Already working as a Product Owner and need to expand your toolbox with skills like visioning and facilitation? Then an Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner (A-CSPO) course is the one for you. Check out our upcoming Product Owner course offerings here.

Dedicated coaching (whether for just you, or for an entire product organization) can take you even farther. Our expert Agile coaches have the experience, techniques, and skills to help you negotiate the toughest institutional challenges. We’ve worked on situations like complex stakeholder domains, not-for-profit product (and public sector) product contexts, and scaled teams. Learn more about our Agile coaching offerings.

 

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