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What It Takes to Be a Good Product Owner

December 12, 2019

The product owner plays a unique, collaborative role in a project and can often be the deciding factor in a project’s success. This article goes over a product owner’s core responsibilities as well as some of their top skills.

For modern software development companies, the management method is crucial to the project’s success. 

Agile is an iterative and flexible methodology that’s become commonplace over the years. It’s based on the principle of creating a working software through comprehensive documentation. And it can accommodate the need for a dynamic solution in an ever-changing industry.
 
In my experience working for an angular development company, a functional Agile team requires a competent product owner who can structure the team for success.

Dividing your project into separate teams led by a product owner can help avoid unnecessary chaos in the work process. Each functional team can focus maximum effort on their specific responsibilities, allowing them to perform the best quality control. 

What It Takes to Be a Good Product Owner

  • What is a product owner?
  • What does a product owner do?
    • Prioritize and order tasks
    • Review and analyze the results of a Sprint
    • Decide what features will go into the final product
  • What are the key qualities of a good product owner?
    • Big-picture thinkers
    • Experimental and flexible attitude
    • Product-driven

What is a Product Owner?

First, we need to clarify what the role of the product owner is. This is a key position in any IT team that has become common, with the rise of Scrum- and Agile-based methodologies. 

As reported in “Achieving Greater Agility” from Forbes Insights 2017, out of 500 international senior executives in July 2017, 92% stated that Agile methods are important to business success.

In an effort to understand the efficiency of Agile methods, in the 2017–2018 State of Scrum survey, data was collected to compare and evaluate the success rate in various industries using multiple different metrics:

  • Common practices
  • Challenges
  • Successes 
  • Transition

Under the category “Leaders of Agile transformation,” senior executives ranked the product owner as the fourth-most important, leading the Agile transformation charge with a score of 22% contribution rate. 

leaders of agile transformation chart

This score on its own shows how necessary product owners are when supporting other team leads, including the executive management (61%), ScrumMaster (48%), and IT manager (27%). 

Product owners are able to apply and utilize new and effective management methods to push the project further.

Still not convinced? 

For “Challenges with implementing Scrum,” the rate of failed Agile projects due to “Product owners/teams not willing/enthusiastic” has been ranked at a whopping 35%.

challenges with implementing scrum

Having a good product owner can be a deciding factor for an Agile project’s success.

What does a Product Owner Do?

Now that we have covered the importance of a good product owner for any Agile project, we need to answer the next big question: what does a product owner do?

While the listed duties are common for the position, they would naturally vary depending on the project’s needs.

Collect feedback from the client 

Product owners carry out meetings that serve to communicate the details of the project, as well as obtaining information regarding deadlines and the importance of different tasks.

Make high-level decisions 

As the direct link between the client and the development team, it falls on the product owner to make decisions that heavily affect both the work process and the end product. They should always have the best interest of the product in mind.

Break the project down into a series of work periods, or "Sprints"

They need to communicate with the team to decide how many tasks can be completed realistically per Sprint. Delegating the Sprint timeframe (usually between 2 and 3 weeks) while allowing for flexibility during the task's planning period is important.

Attend organizational scrum meetings 

Keeping a “healthy” backlog is crucial, so weekly 1-hour meetings have to be structured and organized to push the project forward.

In those meetings, the items of the backlog are prioritized and assigned to specific resources to work on until the next meeting. 

The product owner is the one who lays out the guidelines of each Sprint and the one who implements any further changes that may be needed in the meantime. This allows for a good objective view of where each team is and can help with the overview of the project’s workflow. 

A product owner should always be prepared for meetings by doing some or all of the following:

  • Check the development roadmap before the meeting
  • Order the backlog by importance
  • Be aware if an essential team member is absent and then summing up what was discussed in a meeting 
  • Address any questions and concerns regarding the sprint purpose

Prioritize and order tasks 

Product owners play a very active role in Sprint planning, emphasizing important tasks so that they are taken care of first. They need to keep an eye on when a task should be updated as the situation changes.

Review and analyze results at the end of a Sprint 

What has been done? What could have been done better? What needs to be adjusted for the next Sprint? These are all questions that the product owner covers after a thorough analysis. 

They’ll then implement these changes in the next Sprint planning process, discussing with team members to keep everyone aligned.

Decide what features will go into the final product  

In a software development company, there’s often a research and development (R&D) period for processes. This involves testing new technical approaches that don’t always pan out but can still be time-consuming. Regardless, the data is always kept as it may prove useful in new projects.

Communicate with stakeholders 

Communicating with stakeholders outside of the project team can help clear up any questions. The product owner is responsible for gathering input and incorporating the received feedback into the project.

Welcome any feedback during the development process 

Both Agile and Scrum offer flexibility, which allows for a customized work process that achieves optimal results. As such, there’s no one plan that lays out all of the perfect steps for a project, so it’s up to the product owner to figure it out. 

They must remain available and open-minded towards any suggestions from anyone on the development team as it may shift the development process for the best.

What are the Key Qualities of a Product Owner

As you have probably gathered by now, a good product owner has to demonstrate various qualities to be able to handle the different aspects of the job. 

    product owner key qualities

    There are 6 main traits that a good product owner has:

    1. Big-picture thinkers
    2. Experimental and flexible attitude
    3. Product-driven
    4. Customer-focused
    5. Business savvy
    6. Technically competent
    7. Experienced with UX

    These traits help project managers execute tasks effectively.

    Big-picture Thinkers 

    Product owners must be able to focus on specific tasks while also keeping tabs on what the other teams in the project are doing and why. 

    Seeing the big picture is the only way to manage the project as a whole. This allows the product owner to make sure that there isn’t a team falling behind while other tasks being finished first aren’t becoming overly complicated. At the end of the day, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

    Experimental and Flexible Attitude 

    This is the ability to scrap an idea or a plan if it doesn’t seem to be working out, rather than pushing it until it does. 

    When it comes to the software development industry, it is key to understand the dynamic nature of building new software that has not existed before. R&D teams provide new ideas that often work wonders in the project. But sometimes the attempted path does not fit in the final product.

    Product-Driven 

    This is a product manager that is focused on developing high-quality products. The core belief is, if a product is efficient, easily usable, and well-structured, it can be marketed after-the-fact to the target group that would benefit the most from it.

    While overseeing a product’s development process, the product owner must be knowledgeable as to what the project will benefit from the most and adjust the work process to match the requirements. 

    They must also have a vision of the product’s potential functionality and application.

    Customer-Focused 

    Approach the project focused on the potential end customer so that you can best tailor the solution. A product owner must also research competitors who provide similar services and work to develop a product that offers higher-quality and/or better solutions.

    While some argue that customer-focused and product-driven approaches are opposites, a good product owner must be able to operate with and understand both methods. 

    Business Savvy

    The product owner should have a strong understanding of the business principles of the market, such as customer needs, the biggest competitors, and current digital trends. Developing a business and marketing strategy to best serve the project and being able to implement it are a must.

    Technically Competent 

    More often than not, it’s easier to make a software engineer, development team lead, or a CTO the product owner rather than finding a person who has all the qualities needed from a business background. 

    Along with knowing how to manage the project in terms of a business strategy, the product owner should ideally understand the key concepts of the software development process. That would allow for smoother communication with the technical team and optimized efficiency. 

    Additionally, being able to explain these concepts to stakeholders personally would remove the need for a software engineer to be involved in negotiations and business meetings when planning the project, which saves valuable time.

    Experienced With UX

    Keeping the end user’s intended experience in mind from the start is critical if you want to avoid additional UX work. A good product owner will strive for an intuitive and usable product.

    Product Owners Play a Key Role in Agile/Scrum Projects

    Product owners are an absolute necessity as far as Agile management goes, and their performance will directly affect the entire development chain. It’s a collaborative leadership role that helps guides the project’s direction, though product owners will often pass the credit to the developers who carried out the legwork. 

    Regardless, product owners are key decision-makers who are responsible for understanding the product and business needs, addressing UX concerns, and prioritizing tasks efficiently. They also need to communicate those goals to all relevant stakeholders and keep on their toes as situations change.

    That interplay between well thought out guidance and consistent, focused effort can advance the software development industry by great leaps and bounds.