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What Makes a Great Product Owner?

Calendar February 18, 2013 | User Regina Kershner

The Product Owner is pivotal to the success or failure of a software product. They are like the captain of a ship who envisions the end result and guides the team along the ever changing course to the product destination. A great product owner is fully engaged or at least close to it. Being a product owner is not a part-time job. They have deep domain expertise of their industry, business, customers and users. The best product owners are strong decision makers focused on results and delivering business value, but not necessarily all at once. They are comfortable with delivering value incrementally. Lastly, they are empowered; empowered to make decisions for all three legs of the stool – scope, schedule and budget.

Vision and Business Success Factors

Great product owners have vision. They can see into the future. They have a clear, exciting idea of where they are going and what they are trying to accomplish as well as the roadmap to get there. Along the way, there will be many factors that attempt to take that vision off course.

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” – Steve Jobs

The vision, supported by well-defined and prioritized business goals and objectives (or business success factors) are the beacon in the lighthouse guiding the development team through the rough waters. The vision and success factors can’t be defined once and then tucked away. The product owner must periodically revisit the business success factors to make sure they are still valid, fine tune them as necessary and most importantly communicate the changes in the success factors to the development team. It is imperative to the product’s success that everyone continues to work in concert towards a well understood vision supported by prioritized business goals and objectives.

Fully Engaged

The product owner must have the time and willingness to work directly with the development team. They must be fully engaged. This is not a part-time position. Being a product owner is not something that can successfully be performed as a side job on top of day-to-day responsibilities. The product owner determines what is being built. They are the captain of the ship who must be fully engaged with their team to make sure every change in direction meets the ultimate goal defined in the business success factors.

Knowledgeable

A product owner must have a strong understanding of their industry, users, business processes, customers and key stakeholders. They must have the domain expertise and willingness to write or at least approve user stories along with their supporting acceptance criteria. Together, these user stories describe the vision of what the product will be. So, as well has having the overall vision, a strong product owner must be able to understand and break it down into manageable parts. Through their knowledge they motivate others to see the vision and help to break it down into manageable pieces to achieve it.

Focused on Results

The product owner must be someone who is focused. They are a strong decision maker focused on delivering results and business value at each iteration and product release. Through this focus, they are able to establish priorities and make the hard decisions among the constant change regarding what’s in and what’s out of scope. With a clear focus on results, they are able to establish the business objectives and goals, which then drive the prioritization of the user stories for the software to be built. The product owner is constantly grooming the backlog to refine and prioritize the user stories to keep the team focused on delivering value.

Incremental Value

An effective product owner incrementally grows the product. They do not try to deliver all business value at once. They define a roadmap that lays the foundation and builds upon it. The key is to continually deliver business value and to show incremental progress. In addition, iterative and incremental development provides an opportunity to vet the functionality with users while continuing to refine the product. The product owner should get feedback early and often! They must meet regularly with various user groups and stakeholders to obtain feedback, otherwise, the risk of the system not meeting the business needs becomes extremely high. Incremental development also allows time to work through some of the tougher issues such as scalability and performance while continuing to build out functionality and allows the development team to make design modifications from lessons learned along the way. Don’t try to eat the entire elephant at once!

Empowered

The product owner must be empowered to make decisions. They must be able to work collaboratively with others and be respectful of their points of view, but ultimately they must be empowered to make the final decision regarding what is to be delivered in the product. In addition, they must be empowered and accountable for the budget and schedule. Someone who is not accountable for the development budget and/or schedule will continue to want every feature and function possible with the latest and greatest technology resulting in a product that is over budget, behind schedule and delivers less overall value for the business. The balance between scope, schedule and budget is always a delicate one. As the captain of the ship, the product owner must be empowered and accountable for all three in order to successfully steer the ship along its ever changing course to the product vision.

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