You’ve been waiting years for this! You finally get to replace that old application or system with a new, modern, and (hopefully) better one. You’ve made your business case. You’ve secured project funds. You’re up-to-speed on agile development practices and have vetted dozens of vendors. You’re ready to go!
But wait a minute—have you done, arguably, the most important thing? Have you selected the right product owner? Since the product owner is responsible for ensuring the business needs are met—typically within a set timeframe and budget—it’s crucial that they’re able to make tough decisions under pressure and are backed by leadership when they do. Select the wrong product owner and you may find yourself over-budget and out of time. Select the right product owner and you could catapult your team and technology into realms of greatness unseen (like we’re trying to do here at Flexion!).
Focus on the person, not the job description
During the life of your project, the product owner will make thousands of decisions that impact the scope and timeline of your project. Some of the decisions will have an obvious impact, like choosing to leave out an extra- large feature to cut back on scope. But it’s the smaller, daily decisions that—-when added up—-have the largest impact on the project success.
When selecting your product owner, think less about the job duties (which can be learned) and more about what characteristics the person has. Here are a few character traits I’ve seen in successful product owners.
1. A natural learner
Does your product owner have domain experience? If so, that’s great! Having a deep knowledge of business needs and the inner-workings of your organization will be invaluable for your product owner when having to make prioritization decisions. No domain experience? Look for someone who is naturally curious and can learn things quickly.
2. Good at making difficult decisions under pressure
Unless you want to break the bank, the first version of your product should not contain every bell and whistle the business desires. What seems like a must-have for a business stakeholder, could turn into a nice-to-have when prioritized by the product owner across all the business needs. And if your development team is working with increasing speed, like ours are at Flexion, your product owner must be able to negotiate the decision-making process efficiently, so they don’t block or slow down development.
3. Listens with empathy
Great product owners are naturally curious and driven to both seek and understand the needs of users. They see a list of user stories or features as more than a list of to-dos and are able to hone in effectively on the user’s needs by putting themselves in the user’s shoes and asking great questions. Know someone in your organization who’s a good listener? Maybe they’re your product owner!
4. Great communicator
Good product owners are able to manage communication with a variety of stakeholders, knowing that each requires their own style of communication. They can quell concerns by reassuring them that their needs have been heard and added to the backlog. And they can also deliver an executive-level update, with a cost-benefit summary of a system feature.
5. Comfortable with navigating and making sense of complex business needs
If this is the first agile project for your product owner, managing a large backlog with complex business needs and competing user demands may seem daunting. The product owner you select should be comfortable with processing large amounts of information, organizing it, and bringing clarity when the information is ambiguous.
6. Can see the forest for the trees
While your product owner will need to be involved in the details of the project (and there are many), they need to be able to step back and view the project as a whole. Having this ability will help your product owner see where their role ends and where the development team’s begins. The product owner may get involved in discussions with the development team about solutions, but should be able to “back up” and see that the team can be trusted to do their jobs. They should be able to focus on the big picture and not get hung up with micromanaging the team.
7. Able to stay focused on priorities
There will be a lot of fun and exciting features the team discusses during development. A good product owner knows that not all of them are achievable and won’t be easily distracted by shiny new things. What’s best for the product may not be what’s most exciting (things like refactoring Terraform states), but these things need to get done as well.
8. Willingness to experiment, learn, and adapt
A good product owner is okay with being wrong. In agile development, anything your team is building is considered an experiment until system users have had a chance to use it and the product owner has validated that the solution is meeting the user’s needs. When the potential solution is used by people, the team is able to validate what works or doesn’t work. And when something doesn’t work well for the user, the team takes the information they’ve acquired and adapts their solution. Your product owner should be comfortable with this type of iterative experimentation and be willing to adapt when the experiment reveals unmet user needs.
If you don’t have a roster of stellar product owners at your fingertips, don’t despair! Just look for folks in your organization with these instincts, enroll them in a product owner class, and set them loose to do great things for your project.