Characteristics of a Great Product Owner
The Scrum Guide doesn't provide a complete list of the skills required for any of the accountabilities on a Scrum Team. For example, it doesn't specify that Developers must use Java or C# code. The Scrum Guide simply states that Developers need all of the skills to deliver a Done increment of product each Sprint. We intuitively know that the skills required depend on the product.
The same is true for the Product Owner accountability. But, for some reason, many are surprised to learn that the Scrum Guide doesn't spell out a complete list of this person's ideal characteristics.
So… Who is the Product Owner?
The Product Owner’s main purpose is to maximize the value of the product resulting from the Scrum Team’s work. How this is carried out varies based on the individual, the company and even the product.
Product Owners must understand the organization's business strategy and use that information to create the vision for the product. They decide the most critical work to do next and create a single, ordered list from which the Scrum Team pulls its work. That might sound straightforward, but the Product Owner must weigh competing business, technical, and customer needs. It’s a position of strategic importance to the organization. A Product Owner needs excellent communication skills for continuous collaboration with stakeholders to update the product roadmap and list of most valuable items to complete next.
The Product Owner is the bridge between Business Strategy set by corporate leadership and the Sprint Backlog, which Developers own. They do this by creating a product vision in line with the business strategy. The vision is the high-level why for the product. The Product Owner also develops a Product Goal (which “lives” in the Product Backlog), providing a concrete step towards achieving the vision. The Product Owner then works with the Developers to determine the measures the team will use to gauge progress toward the Product Goal.
The Product Owner creates a product delivery forecast and the Product Backlog, which is an ordered to-do list the team pulls work from into the Sprint Backlog.
Product Owners must understand the Scrum framework but might also benefit from understanding Agile concepts such as release planning and how to use complementary practices such as creating user stories. They should also understand relevant product management concepts such as market share, return on investment, and positioning strategy.
Characteristics of a Great Product Owner
The characteristics of a great Product Owner depend on the Product. The following is a general list of the ones I find most valuable.
Relevant Business Experience
The Product Owner should understand the product’s marketplace. They should know the customer’s wants, needs, pain points, the product’s sales channels, and revenue streams. They don’t have to be the company’s expert in all of these areas but should be able to work with the Developers and SMEs to document a business model canvas that describes these areas with clarity.
Focused on Incremental Delivery
Scrum relies upon incremental (usable), iterative (frequent) delivery to provide valuable products to customers sooner. The Product Backlog makes this achievable. Each Product Backlog item (PBI) must deliver a unit of value to the customer. That means we don’t have separate “development” and “testing” PBIs, and we don’t create PBIs that focus on a single technology layer unless it would result in something the customer can use. For example, if your product is a website, you wouldn’t create a database table unless it’s connected to a web form.
Many of us who have been using traditional value delivery methods - such as waterfall - must do a lot of unlearning. We are used to creating project plans that break down tasks and assign them to different people. We must stop doing that. Instead, our Product Backlog should contain a list of WHAT stakeholders want, not HOW the team will do it.
The Product Owner works with the Developers to ensure that they size the highest ordered PBIs such that they can complete them within one Sprint. Right-sizing the PBIs means reducing the scope of what stakeholders want into small, manageable bites. As stated above, it does NOT mean breaking down the PBIs into smaller chunks based on who will deliver each thing. This is a critical distinction to understand.
Updates the Product Backlog Frequently
The Product Owner’s purpose is to maximize product value resulting from the Developers’ work. The primary tool they use to achieve this is the Product Backlog, which contains new features, fixes for technical debt, and bug fixes, among other things. Having an ordered, frequently updated Product Backlog increases transparency. If the Product Owner alone knows what the team will work on next, it can negatively impact the team’s ability to help the Product Owner refine the Product Backlog. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming into a Sprint Planning event to hear the Product Owner say that a lower ordered PBI is actually the top priority.
Has a Benefit Mindset
Having a benefit mindset centering on why something is being done is essential for everyone on a Scrum Team because it helps with goal focus. I love the Sevawise matching game for demonstrating what having a benefit mindset means. https://sevawisegames.com/games/mindset-matching
Clearly Articulates Goals
The Product Owner’s accountability includes setting a clear, measurable Product Goal. The Product Goal should align with the product vision and support organizational strategic goals. PBIs should support the Product Goal, outlining the steps the Scrum Team must take to achieve it.
Thinks Like an Entrepreneur
The best Product Owners are invested in the success of their products. Even if they do not have budgeting authority, Product Owners can still think like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs think strategically about what is best for their products and strive to uncover the features that will attract new customers. They explore what’s necessary to ensure the product’s long-term success. Product Owners can have a massive impact on the viability of their products over time by prioritizing technical debt and desirable features and balancing these against internal and external stakeholder requests.
The Product Owner needs to say “no” to stakeholders when required. Conversely, they should champion what is right for the product (such as delivering fixes for technical debt) even when it’s not popular. The Product Owner should make their decisions visible in Product Backlog content and its order.
Works well with Developers
The best Product Owners are collaborators and develop good rapport with the Developers. It’s important because the Product Owner has to communicate to the team about what they should work on and be open to ideas from Developers about the most valuable thing to do next. Because Developers are close to the product, they frequently have excellent suggestions for PBIs that can help the team reach the Product Goal faster.
Good at Stakeholder Management
A crucial part of the Product Owner’s accountability is stakeholder management. The Product Owner can delegate some of this to Developers, but they must be able to establish trust with their stakeholders and manage their expectations. They can do this in part through regular meetings with stakeholders and developing consistently reliable forecasts or release plans. Great Product Owners put thought into a communication plan using platforms that ensure stakeholders get the information they need and have channels to provide feedback to the team.
Creates a Reliable Forecast
The Scrum Guide is silent on who should create the Scrum Team’s delivery forecast because one person shouldn’t own it. A forecast depends upon the Developers’ delivery rate and the Product Backlog ordering. In most organizations, the Product Owner is closely involved with Developers in creating and communicating the forecast.
For common forecasting methods, see my post “When will we get there? Forecasting for Scrum Teams.”
The Product Owner is a crucial Agile team member whose central purpose is to maximize product value from the Scrum Team’s work. How they achieve this purpose - and the characteristics they need to be successful - can vary based on the product. What are the critical attributes of a Product Owner in your experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
About Mary Iqbal
Mary has trained more than 1,000 people in Agile, Scrum and Kanban. She has guided the Agile transformation for organizations with more than 60 teams and has led the creation of new products from product definition through self-organization and launch. Mary is the founder of Rebel Scrum, a consulting company that helps teams transform to Agile and provides training and coaching services founded upon practical experience. Rebel Scrum has experience in large-scale agile transformations in a variety of environments including technology and business transformations. Signup for one of Rebel Scrum's upcoming public scrum training classes or contact us to discuss private Scrum training and consulting options for your organization.