Behind the Curtain: The Product Owner Role

When someone owns something they tend to keep a closer watch on where that something is and whether or not it’s in good working order. Owners are more sensitive to actions that may adversely affect the value of their investment. It’s the car you own vs the car you rent. This holds true for products, projects, and teams. For this reason the title of “product owner” is well suited to the responsibilities assigned to the role. The explicit call-out to ownership carries a lot of goodness related to responsibility, leadership, and action.

Having been a product owner and having coached product owners, I have a deep respect for anyone who takes on the challenges associated with this role. In my view, it’s the most difficult position to fill on an Agile team. For starters, there are all the things a product owner is responsible for as described in any decent book on scrum: setting the product vision and road map, ordering the product backlog, creating epics and story cards, defining acceptance criteria, etc. What’s often missing from the standard set of bullet items is the “how” for doing them well. Newly minted product owners are usually left to their own devices for figuring this out. And unfortunately, in this short post I won’t be offering any how-to guidance for developing any of the skills generally recognized to be part of the product owner role.

What I’d most like to achieve in this post is calling out several of the key skills associated with quality product ownership that are usually omitted from the books and trainings – the beyond-the-basics items that any product owner will want to include in their continuous learning journey with Agile. In no particular order…

  • Product owners must be superb negotiators when working with stakeholders and team members. The techniques used for each group are different so it’s important to understand the motivations that drive them. I’ve found Jim Camp’s “Start with No” and Chris Voss’ “Never Split the Difference” to be particularly helpful in this regard.
  • One of the four values stated in the Agile Manifesto is “Responding to change over following a plan.” Unfortunately, this is often construed to mean any change at any time is valuable. This Agile value isn’t a directive for maximum entropy and chaos. Product owners must remain vigilant to scope changes. And the boundaries for scope are defined by the decisions product owners make. So product owners must be decisive and committed to the decisions, agreements, and promises that have been made with stakeholders and the team.
  • Product owners need to have a good sense for when experimentation may be needed to sort out any complex or risky features in the project – creating spikes or proof-of-concept work early enough in the project so as to avoid any costly pivots later in the project.
  • Even with experimentation, making the call to pivot will require a product owner’s clear understanding of past events and any path forward that offers the greatest chance for success. As the sage says, predictions are difficult to make, particularly about the future. The expectation isn’t for clairvoyance, rather for the ability to pay close attention to what the (non-vanity) data are telling them.
  • Understanding how to work through failures and dealing with “The Dip,” as Seth Godin calls it, are also important skills for a product owner. The team and the stakeholders are going to look to the product owner’s leadership to demonstrate confidence that they are on the right track.

More than other roles on an Agile team, the product owner must be a truly well-rounded and experienced individual. Paradoxically, it is a role that is both constrained by the highly visible nature of the position and dynamic due to the skill set required to maximize the chances for project success.

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