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The Desirable Characteristics of a Product Owner

Published on 31st March 2010

I often get asked what characteristics a product owner should exhibit. Even though the answer depends on a number of factors including the type of the product, its importance, complexity and newness as well as the size of the project, successful product owners I have worked with share the attributes discussed in this post.

Visionary and Doer

The product owner is a visionary who can envision the final product and communicate the vision. But the product owner is also a doer who sees the vision through to completion. This includes validating ideas and capturing user stories, closely collaborating with the team, analysing feedback from stakeholders and users, and updating the product backlog. As an intrapreneur, the product owner should be comfortable with change, ambiguity, debate, conflict, and informed risk taking.

Leader and Team Player

As the individual responsible for the product’s success, the product owner provides guidance and direction for everyone involved in the development effort and ensures that tough decisions are made. For instance, should the launch date be postponed or should less functionality be delivered? At the same time, the product owner must be a team player who relies on close collaboration with the other Scrum team members, yet has no formal authority over them. You can think of the product owner as primus inter pares, first among peers, regarding the product.

Being a leader and team player can be a hard line to toe. By no means should the product owner dictate decisions, yet at the same time neither should the product owner be indecisive or employ a laissez-faire management style. Instead, the individual should act as a shepherd for the innovation process, guiding the project and seeking team consensus in the decision-making process. Making decisions about the product collaboratively ensures the team’s buy-in, leverages the team’s creativity and knowledge, and results in better decisions. Working this way requires facilitation and patience because team members often have to disagree and argue first before a new solution can be synthesised from the different ideas and perspectives.

Communicator and Negotiator

The product owner must be an effective communicator and negotiator. The individual communicates with and aligns different parties, including customers, users, development, marketing, sales, service, operations, and senior management. The product owner is the voice of the customer, communicating customer needs and requirements and bridging the gap between “the suits” and “the techies.” Sometimes this means saying no and other times negotiating a compromise.

Empowered and Committed

The product owner must have enough authority and the right level of management sponsorship to lead the development effort and to align stakeholders. An empowered product owner is essential for leading the effort to bring the product to life. The product owner must have the proper decision-making authority—from finding the right team members to deciding which functionality is delivered as part of the release. The individual must be someone who can be entrusted with a budget and at the same time has the ability to create a work environment that fosters creativity and innovation. Finally, the product owner must be committed to the development effort.

Available and Qualified

The product owner must be available and qualified to do a great job. Being the product owner is usually a full-time job. It is important to give product owners enough time to sustainably carry out their responsibilities. If the individual is overworked, the project’s progress suffers and the resulting product may be suboptimal. Being adequately qualified usually requires an intimate understanding of the customer and the market, being passionate about the user experience, and the ability to communicate needs and describe requirements, to manage a budget, to guide a development project, and to be comfortable working with a cross-functional, organising team.

Nobody is Perfect

Before you now look for the perfect product owner or worry that you might not fit the bill, be aware that product owners usually need time and support to transition into the role and to acquire the necessary skills. And nobody is perfect: Every product owner has some strengths that facilitate playing the role as well as some weaknesses that can make it challenging. A product owner may be very good at envisioning the product, talking to customers, and creating the product roadmap but may not be used to work closely with a bunch of techies or lack the necessary strategic skills, for instance. A common challenge is finding employees with the necessary product management and market/product-specific knowledge to do the job well.

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