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7 secrets of a successful Product Owner

Product Owner role is not an easy one as they have to wear many hats and demonstrate a large array of skills - interpersonal communication, analytics, creativity, discipline and negotiation to name a few. On top of that they need to know the product area really well and understand all the technical aspects of the industry. I have trained and coached a lot of Product Owners throughout my career and I can tell you that it doesn’t matter what kind of organization, team or product it is. It takes a few core skills and behaviors for a PO to shine bright like a diamond, and there is also a number of anti patterns that make a lot of talented POs fail miserably. In this article I would like to share the traits and behaviors that make good Product Owners great, as well as some antipatterns that can sabotage their success.

# 1 Prioritizing like a pro

What is it:

The main tool of a Product Owner is a backlog where all the user stories, ideas, tasks and requests are collected. Some backlogs are good and have beautiful user stories with acceptance criteria, and other backlogs are not great and filled with nothing but feature requests. The quality of a backlog is a topic for a different discussion, but I do believe that as long the team has at least a backlog with something, they’re onto something and are not hopeless.
The PO has to prioritize backlog as frequently as they can and always have clarity about what comes first and what comes next. That said, we only care about the top of backlog, so don’t try to arrange every single thing on it - the priorities will change hundred times before we get to the bottom, so do yourself a favor and don’t waste your time

Antipatterns:

  • There are two or more backlogs for 1 team (even if the team supports two or more products, there should always be 1 backlog per team so that everyone know what is the next important thing to work on
  • Backlog is a formality (or doesn’t exist at all) - PO just tells people what to work on next
  • PO has a list of “priority #1” items and everything is super urgent
  • PO doesn’t give any directions about priorities to the team and lets them decide what to pick up

#2 Team member who is seen as a leader

What it is:

This is actually quite tricky. PO is normally not (and should not be!) a manager or a leader of the team. They are a team member, but in a lot of situations the they are also expected to make key decisions about the vision and the priorities. If the PO is not an informal leader of the team, the team members will not follow them, so it is extremely important to develop the leadership skills and learn how to be a leader without formal authority

Antipatterns:

  • PO is a dictator telling the team what to do and not listening to their opinions
  • PO is leaving all the key product decisions up to team and does not take responsibility for the product success
  • There is another informal leader in the team who drives the conversations

#3 Breaking silos and building bridges

What it is:

Product owner has to be a great communicator, being able to connect with people and connect people with each other. Inside the team they need to ensure collaboration and cooperation, so if the team works in silos it is up for the PO to resolve it. A smart PO also networks with the leadership, other teams and stakeholders outside the organization. You never know, when you will need a CFO’s approval, marketing team’s support or an article featuring your product, so build those bridges and maintain the connections ahead of time. I absolutely hate office politics and I don’t suggest you engaging in it, but I think having a widespread network of connections across the stakeholders would never hurt.

Antipatterns:

  • PO encourages silos by assigning work to people and not having any team discussions about scope of work
  • PO engages in open conflicts and political games with other people in the organization
  • PO causes or encourages conflicts within the team

#4 Being the true CEO of the product

What it is:

It is often said that a Product Owner is a CEO of the product, which means they are the final decision maker about the vision and priorities, they set the goals and they are also accountable for achieving those goals. CEO doesn’t wait for a manager to tell them what to do, but would be presenting the results of their work to the board of directors and stakeholders. A good CEO is inspiring, confident, visionary and over-achiever. They live and breathe company values, care deeply about customer satisfaction and strive to achieve high business outcomes. A Product Owner is a mini-CEO, sharing the same set of qualities and behaviors.

Antipatterns:

  • PO seeks approval for everything they do and waits for their manager to set goals for them
  • PO is unable to say no to the stakeholders’ requests and tries to please everyone
  • PO doesn’t take responsibility for the team’s performance and product outcomes

#5 Being OK with hearing their baby is ugly

What it is:

A good Product Owner is usually both analytical and creative person. They look at the data to understand product performance, analyze customers’ behavior and identify the trends. At the same time, they often need to come up with creative solutions and try things no one has done before. Sometimes the new ideas win them jackpots, and sometimes they ruin the product. Agile teams do a lot of prototyping, user testing and customer validation to understand at early stages whether ideas are working or have to be killed. Many times throughout their career a PO will be told that their idea is terrible, and they need to be okay with it. By the way, quite often a terrible idea can be reworked into something beautiful and smart, so not all the bad ideas should die. However, hearing that your baby is ugly is not easy, and a good PO is the one who can acknowledge it, learn a lesson and move on.

Antipatterns:

  • PO pushes team to continue working on a questionable product (or feature) despite negative customer feedback or user testing results
  • PO does not seek feedback and does not make attempts to test their hypothesis. They just believe that they are right

#6 Measuring what matters and connecting the dots

What it is:

Amongst many other things, a Product Owner is also a good analyst. They need to understand the customers’ behavior, look at the trends, conduct A/B testing and in general work a lot with data. It is usually not expected that a PO would be a data scientist, but they need to have a solid understanding of statistics, probability and scientific method. But even more importantly, a Product Owner needs to be able to set measurable goals, analyze the results and make actionable decisions based on data.

Antipatterns:

  • PO does not look at data and follows gut feeling when deciding priorities for the product
  • PO does not understand and the major statistical concepts (statistical significance, confidence intervals etc)
  • PO makes decisions about definition of experiment success after the data is collected and analyzed (in other words, they don’t set up hypothesis before running an experiment, but rather do the second guessing after it is done)

#7 Knowing the customer

What it is:

Last but not least, a Product Owner must know everything about the customers and embody the customer when talking to the team. It might feel like an obvious thing, but is missed more often than you would imagine. First of all, a PO needs to have a clear understanding who their customers are, and second, they need to be able to separate themselves from the customer while empathizing with them and representing them to the team. If you are a 28 year old male living in urban area, you needs and preferences would be quite different from those of a 37 year old mother of two living in suburbia. But nevertheless, you would need to get into her head, become her for a while and deeply understand what she likes, dislikes and what she eats for breakfast. This requires a lot of research, interviews, observations and customer persona exercises.

Antipatterns:

  • PO doesn’t do customer research and relies on their gut feelings (“personally, I would prefer this color”)
  • PO knows everything about the customer, but the team does not (and it is PO’s job to make sure they know customers as well as PO themselves)
The list can go on and on - nothing has been said about user stories, planning or presentation skills so far. But I do believe that the list above covers the essentials. If you do it right, the rest will be much easier and will come quite naturally, so treat this list as a starting point. Once you nail the basics, keep learning and advancing - the sky is the limit.
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