5 Keys to Being a Great Product Owner • Slash

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5 Keys to Being a Great Product Owner

September 16, 2022

In the software development world, the Product Owner (PO) plays an integral part in the development process. This role is vital to the scrum team and one that should never be overlooked. As with all roles, you want to consider the person most suitable for the position. Though, what skills and attributes make the best PO? Come along while we dive into what we believe are the five keys to being a great Product Owner.

Planning & Time Management

Plan twice, execute once… is that a thing? Well, perhaps it should be as we can’t seem to emphasise this first point enough. Planning and its partner, time management, are vital to being a great PO. Often POs find themselves with not just a single project, but multiple projects which for time will always push your stress metre sky high. To avoid this peak stress let’s look at some tips that a great PO can employ to up their planning and time management game.

To begin, setting deadlines for both you and others will help keep things on track. Remember that your time affects theirs and vice versa, so maintaining a level of mutual respect for each other’s deadlines will help. Along with this, it’s also good to set time boxes. Some people will work themselves into oblivion to complete the task, but honestly this is more often than not, an ineffective way of getting things done. If you can achieve 90% completion in the decided time box, this is more valuable than ploughing forward another 7 straight hours to get that final 10% done.

Next, remember the calendar that hung in the kitchen when you were young? It’s time to get reacquainted as planning ahead and setting a schedule will allow you to be more prepared and on the ball. With that, don’t be afraid to lock your time in order to avoid the embarrassing situation of constantly apologising for running behind, or worse, rescheduling. Locking your time in when you know something is coming allows you to be better prepared when things unfold. Instead of scrambling to reschedule calendar items to make time for something urgent, you’ve already got some blocked off time that you can use.

As we all know POs often deal with unexpected situations. A great PO not only knows this, but proactively plans in advance for this. For example, consider “time locking” a couple hours a day when you know you’re bound to have some emergency land in your lap that needs immediate attention. So active planning and time management in a flexible and adaptable manner is key point number one to a great PO.

Backlog Prioritisation

As you are likely aware, it is the main priority of the PO to manage the backlog; therefore, naturally this is our number two key to being a great PO. The nice point here is that this skill is both very teachable and transferable, meaning at some point the PO can delegate these tasks as needed. That being said, think of your PO as your all-star player here with the best grasp of the gravity of the different tasks. So therein lies the irony as it’s quite subjective knowledge making it slightly tricky to transfer completely. I know you’re thinking, “the writer is contradicting himself”; however, let’s delve deeper to better understand the point. The PO’s job is to represent the product, the team and the client; how much they lean towards one or the other can vastly affect the prioritisation so experience comes in handy.

In order to accurately prioritise your scrum tickets, those being technical stories, user stories, bugs and tasks, it’s good to start with considering some key questions. For instance, what provides the most business value? Business value, as you know, is what the client is focused on. If we create a product and give the client a login page, that’s great business value as the client can now login to the software. As they say, seeing is believing. However, if I do some task that covers security, the client has no genuine understanding of what you’ve done and hence, don’t appreciate the value in the same way. So there clearly is visible business value and unseen business value; both are important, but the PO must balance the visible value with the unseen value so as to keep the client satisfied.

Another point a great PO knows to consider is what needs to be done in order to unlock other things. You line things up neatly so as to watch the dominos fall sequentially in a smooth seamless manner; therefore, knowing which “dominos” to put ahead of others is vital. Interconnected with this is understanding what takes the most time to complete and what is the most complex. So prioritise unlocking things in time to avoid a cascading effect of blocked items; as well, understanding the scope of what are the potential blockers or choke points for certain things and prioritise them in a way that makes sense for your timeline and backlog.

Continuing in more depth, the PO must also consider things that make the most delivery sense. If the PO is creating a project timeline and feature A is due by August and feature B is due by September, naturally work for September should not be the focal point when the August deliverable has not yet been completed. This dovetails nicely into the PO also managing what the team wants to do vs what the client wants to do. There will always be things the development team wants to do and things they dread doing; a quick 20-minute jog is much easier than a 3+ hour marathon run. A great PO knows how to balance the backlog, giving the team a sprint with something that’s cool and something that’s arduous all leading to important deliveries to the client. This allows the PO to tactfully balance what the client wants to see delivered and what the product needs delivered. A backlog with something that wows the client, a simple deliverable that gives a nice flash and a bang, can turn a mood around and keep your client happy.

All of these points are a delicate balancing act that require one to be not only very aware of all aspects of the project, stakeholders, team and business. Like a waiter carrying a dozen plates to table three, a great PO shows tact and experience in the backlog prioritisation in order to keep all parties satisfied.

Balancing Needs

Now, you’re still with me, right? Our second point, though lengthy, feeds into our third which is balancing needs. A great PO understands the responsibility and importance of representing the product, the client, the project, the development team, and the resources and budget equally. Now you’re thinking, the PO is seemingly a walking conflict of interest as this is surely impossible. You are correct; however, it’s still important to consider everyone who you represent. Whether you lean one way or another, there is still a necessity to weigh all options and not disregard some.

Let’s elaborate on the various needs. For instance, it is not uncommon for the client to have an upcoming demo or presentation, and they want something delivered quickly for the purpose of securing funding. The team has needs as well, remember these are people who work long hours coding and do get tired so a great PO will be sure not to overload them; driving the team forward at breakneck speed will only cause long term burnout. Connected to the team’s needs is resourcing, planning to ensure you have enough team members to complete the sprint. Simultaneously keep in mind, you have an agile team so the PO needs to use this to their advantage. Though a great PO knows they are part of a bigger group of people so don’t hoard resources.

For a final point on needs, we must touch on the product, project and budget. As you likely know, the  product itself encapsulates the user of the product and what they want. They not only need but deserve representation which the PO must deliver. Remember the title, Product Owner, the product’s needs should be the first and last item on a PO’s needs list as everything else will impact it. Users often ask for the moon, a great PO understands this and transforms that pie in the sky into a viable, deliverable, and cost effective product. To the latter point, the PO must keep in mind how all these aspects impact the budget and aim to not run afoul of it. All the while managing the project’s contractual obligations. The Product Owner works on behalf of someone else, and a great PO is aware of other people’s pressures on them and finding the balance needed to get the job done.

Managing Expectations

Moving into our fourth key to being a great PO, managing expectations. At this point you likely realise due to all the various players involved, there are an innumerous number of expectations on a PO’s mind all the time. Let’s touch on the main categories of expectations from the client, the team, supervisors and the PO’s own personal expectations.

Client expectations can be both broad and vast. The critical point is for the PO to never under or over promise. Of course, it’s great to say you’ll do one thing over the next week and actually deliver a 100 things. Though it doesn’t look good from a planning perspective if you said one and you delivered 100. Make a point to find the correct balance between the over and under for your client; not too obvious and not too egregious. Also remember that you can’t predict the future; there’s always potential for team health issues, some natural disaster, mistakes, etc. So risk should always be factored into the equation when considering client expectations.

For team expectations, we know this is typically not the responsibility of the PO, rather the iteration manager (scrum master); however, it helps to be one to push for it. Between the PO and iteration manager, it’s good to have a united front, both pushing and encouraging the team. Set the bar high for the team, but make the expected targets achievable.

As a PO you will have someone supervising you. Whether for instance it’s a CPO, CTO, or project manager, transparency is key as they will be your closest ally in the long term. Display what you have done but don’t show off; simultaneously, don’t hide what you’ve done for fear of consequence. Let’s simplify this, be a team player. Be honest and truthful with your supervisor, as remember they are your best ally so don’t soil that relationship.

Finally the PO must manage their own expectations. It’s easy to join a project optimistic with the sense that the sky’s the limit, but a healthy dose of reality will likely set in so be mindful of this. Be optimistic but even-keeled, pessimism has no place here. Consider that it’s often easier to plan for difficulties than the next super app that will dominate the market; that’s not pessimistic, it’s realistic coming from an experienced mindset.

Problem Solving

Rounding out our top five keys to being a great PO, we have the ironically general yet vital skill of problem solving. Now problem solving can often focus a bit too much on solely finding solutions for the immediate problem. While this is not always a bad thing, for development, more focus should be placed on finding the root cause of the problem. It brings to mind the adage that treating the illness is obviously better than just treating the symptoms. This may be more time consuming, but it produces more beneficial long term results.

Naturally our reaction when presented with a problem is to find a solution posthaste to remove the obstacle created. It’s a knee jerk, gut instinct we all share, but one that can ironically be unhelpful. A great PO knows the value of first considering the problem origin before jumping into solving it. Ask yourself, “Is this the real problem, or is something else at work here?” `Pull from your experience, open your mental 4D chess board and attempt to dissect what is truly going on behind the curtain. This general yet vital skill truly separates the people who want to be a PO from those who are genuinely great Product Owners!

Thanks for sticking with us on our journey through the five keys to being a great Product Owner. The points covered herein are all attainable for the right person who is motivated to elevate their PO ability. Speaking from experience, being a PO is a journey unto itself; nothing can replace on the ground experience. Though not everyone excels as the keys to greatness may elude them, getting lost in the fog of the job itself. Be a planner, prioritise meticulously, balance needs and expectations realistically, and delve into the root of problems to find long term lasting solutions. These keys will allow you to chisel yourself into a great Product Owner!

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