Interview: What makes a great product owner?

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When working with clients we have often found that the product owner makes all the difference in whether a project will be a success or not. So what makes a great product owner? We spoke with scrum masters Iulia Suciu and Alex Strang about their experiences. 

In your role you work with a large number of stakeholders who all play a part in delivering a successful project. What makes product owners so uniquely important?

Iulia (I): Well, the scrum master is more focused on the overall health of the scrum team and also on its effectiveness, whereas the product owner is the person who always has the customer in mind. They also help gather the correct information from all stakeholders, including the needs of the end-users, potential investors and the developers. That means the product owner effectively acts as a bridge that links the world of development with the world of the business stakeholders. 

Alex (A): In my view, they are uniquely important because, on the one hand, they are required to collaborate closely with the scrum master on the sprint workflow - very much focussed on the ‘now’ - but then they also need to be laser focussed on the long term vision for the product, the roadmap. Product owners are the ones in the scrum team with the most future focus, so they are charged with ensuring that the backlog issues included in each sprint are those that get the product to the next level. 

Communication seems to be a key factor in any successful project - what are the core communication skills you see in great product owners?

I: Communication is one of the most important skills for anyone on an agile team. Everyone should be transparent and willing to collaborate to achieve a common goal, and communication is the foundation that makes that possible. Since product owners work closely with all stakeholders, they need to communicate especially clearly and effectively. Successful product owners are also able to adapt to different teams and personality types within teams while also understanding and executing the vision of the product.

A: Yes exactly. The product owner faces inwards and outwards of the scrum team, and that requires expert communication skills. When facing the team it's about a mixture of empathy for them while also applying an appropriate amount of pressure to drive the team to meet or even exceed product expectations. When facing other stakeholders, it's all about understanding and translating business needs while also managing expectations. All in all, a tricky balance!

Do product owners necessarily need to be technical experts, or do you find individuals with different backgrounds just as effective in their role? 

A: This is an interesting one - on the one hand, technical product owners are very handy because they quickly understand technical limitations and can help to problem solve from a technical perspective. However, they can also step on the toes of other team members who often have more expertise in a specific area and may wish to solve problems in their own way. The biggest risk is a product owner who becomes more focussed on solving the technical problems than the problem the product aims to solve for the end user. Non-technical individuals don’t face this challenge as much, and in my experience find it easier to keep the end user in mind. They can, however, become disconnected from the technical part of the team if they are unable to at least partially understand those elements. 

I: I would go as far as saying that a product owner with technical knowledge is a big benefit. If they have an understanding of design, software development, the Agile framework and Scrum approach, or IT infrastructure, and bring some healthy respect for other technical domains with them, that’s very useful. Of course, that’s on top of the business insight they bring to the role, like we’ve already said.

Can you tell us of a project you remember working on that had an exceptional product owner - or perhaps the exact opposite, an individual that hindered work? What stands out most in these situations?

I: I've been lucky enough to have worked with a great product owner who was very transparent with the team. She gave actionable feedback and always listened to the team's opinions. She also demonstrated how important proper communication is by sending timely updates about deadlines and product specifications to the team. It made everyone’s job so much easier. 

A: The best product owners I’ve worked with have understood that a happier team will think better and produce better products. This doesn’t mean that very high expectations can’t be set or that the team can’t be pushed to deliver. But it does mean that they understand that the team isn't a machine and that its members can’t operate at extreme levels forever. They understand that breaks and rewards for effort are crucial to ongoing high performance. The other key element for me is for product owners to muck in - they are people who offer to work on anything that needs doing. Those who are able to contribute will become better members of the team. Which is really what you want, because Scrum works best when the product owner is a fully integrated team member.

Lastly, can you list a few key Do’s and Dont’s for any budding product owners who want to be the best version of themselves? 

A: Oooh I’ve got a few, actually. In no particular order I’d say, remember you are an equal member of the team - not the boss but an individual part of a greater whole. And if you care for the team, they will care for you; it also helps if you show empathy and apply a bit of humour at times to reduce pressure in high stress situations. Communication is key, we’ve mentioned that - so communicate early and clearly. Oh, and divide your time effectively. Literally, divide it in your calendar each week, so you have X% future facing and X% current and next sprint focussed. Because it is so easy to get caught up in the urgency of each sprint. But if you lose focus on the future, your product will drift into directionless development - which is expensive and unsatisfying. Also, learn to write good user stories. So useful. 

I: Ha, my advice is a little shorter. Don't say 'yes' to stakeholders until you discuss the matter with your team. Communication really is the key here, so do it and be transparent. A great product owner should have the ability to turn their imagination into reality by actively guiding the scrum team and all stakeholders toward the end goal.

If you'd like to find out how our team can work with your product owner to deliver an amazing digital product, contact us for a no-strings-attached chat.

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