7 Key Characteristics of an Effective Product Owner

The PO Is Not Just a Messenger for the Business

29 January 2014


The product owner (PO) is a key player in the development of a solution using Agile. IT organizations just starting to move to Agile ways of working may fall into the trap of perceiving the PO as a messenger for the business, relaying what the business stakeholders describe as requirements. Such organizations should watch out and instead describe the roles and responsibilities of the PO in a manner that upholds the spirit of Agile, especially the principle of involving the business side throughout the development cycle.

Here are seven reasons why the PO is not just a messenger for the business:

1. Represents the business

The product owner is the face of the business for the development team. As the name suggests, she owns the product. She carries immense functional knowledge of the business and knows what the business would need in the near term and the longer term. This knowledge helps the development team bank on the product owner to get answers to questions related to functional and nonfunctional requirements.

While representing the business, the PO also evangelizes Agile practices within her teams to adapt to Agile ways of working.

2. Has a vision for the product

The PO is a subject matter expert and understands the business of the organization very well. Often she is the architect of the business solution and has a vision for evolving the product into a viable, long-term solution to address specific business requirements.

The vision of the PO helps in structuring the modules of the product, aids in understanding country- and region-specific requirements, and enables the building of features to address statutory requirements as well. These requirements, when planned up front, could save precious time and effort when the product shapes up into a complete solution in the later stages of development.

3. Makes responsible decisions

The subject matter expertise and the vision of the product helps the PO make crucial decisions about the product -- whether a given feature is needed, whether it is needed right in the first release, etc. In other words, the PO is best placed to prioritize the requirements and reprioritize them as the team moves through sprints. Brainstorming with the development team, the PO reviews implementation alternatives and selects the one that best suits the business priorities.

The PO also helps the development team make crucial decisions on the definition of done, the type of testing necessary, and the rigor of testing for certain critical functionalities. The PO works with the team to arrive at the acceptance criteria that will be used at the release level before the functionalities go into production.

4. Influences releases

The PO plays a key role in charting the release calendar. Based on a thorough understanding of the business strategies, market trends, and end-user needs, the PO is able to predict with reasonable accuracy when a set of functionalities will be relevant to the customers.

While influencing the enterprise-level release calendar, the PO determines which features should be taken up in a given sprint in order to align with the release calendar. The PO's knowledge of the market and the end users helps in prioritization of functionality. The team significantly benefits from such prioritization and focuses on delivering the agreed-upon functionality sprint after sprint.

When reprioritizing or dropping a given functionality, the PO has a reason for the decision and can articulate it convincingly to the development team as well as to the other stakeholders.

5. Provides visibility to business leadership

The PO closely engages with the team and works with them throughout the development cycle, helping in prioritization, understanding constraints, mitigating risks, providing requirement clarifications, etc. With firsthand information on the progress, risks, and concerns, the PO provides visibility to management on where in the development cycle the product is and when the leadership can expect valuable functionalities to come out to production. This visibility in turn helps the senior leaders in communicating with the market, the end users, partners, vendors, analysts, and other stakeholders.

6. Motivates tech teams to perform to their full potential

Over a period, the PO develops a good rapport with the development team and understands their strengths and improvement areas. Working closely with the ScrumMaster, the PO motivates the team and acts as a catalyst to bring out the best team performance. A motivated team, in turn, sustains its performance and delivers value to the business sprint after sprint.

7. Maximizes business value

One of the most significant mandates of the PO is to maximize value for the business. First the PO defines "business value." She articulates in simple terms what "value" would mean to the business stakeholders and others. Then, at a given release or sprint level, she identifies the features of the solution that would deliver the maximum value to the business. Ideally, with immense knowledge of the market and customer needs, she should be able to attach a dollar value -- at least a value range -- to each feature. Monetarily valuing every feature has many advantages, including the following:
  • Helps the team realize the value of their work and appreciate how their deliverables impact the business.
  • Calls for support and commitment from all stakeholders by quantitatively describing what is at stake.
  • Provides confidence to business leadership that high-value items are being worked on by the teams.
  • Enables the PO and the team in making the right decisions when new features are identified or when requirements have to be reprioritized. The PO calculates the business value of the requirements every time a reprioritization happens or a new feature is introduced.
Thus the PO plays a vital role in collaboration with IT in order to deliver maximum business value at the right time. Business and IT leadership should appreciate this role and help the PO click!

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Comments

Venkatesan Jayaramakrishnan, CSM, 2/1/2014 3:35:43 PM
Good Article
Kamal Hasan Kotapati, CSM, 2/2/2014 4:41:55 AM
Nice article. I agree with you on all reasons/Key Characteristics of PO except 6th reason as it main responsibility of Scrum Master. As you know, SM will make sure that engineering practices/processes are adapted/followed by the team. Also, SM motivates the team for the best performance/results
Colin Sweetman, CSP,CSM, 2/4/2014 10:39:11 AM
On point 6., a simple "Thank you" from the PO to the team when they deliver releasable product increments can go a very long way and is often forgotten.
Ravishankar N, CSM, 2/5/2014 11:10:56 PM
Thanks Kamal Hasan. I agree that the SM motivates the team. However the PO, representing the business also should appreciate the team's effort and encourage them to perform to their fullest. Hearing a good remark from the customer is always a tech team's expectation! Isn't it?
Ravishankar N, CSM, 2/5/2014 11:13:42 PM
Thanks Colin for the comment. Absolutely - a simple 'Thank you' or 'good job' from the PO goes a long way!
Ravishankar N, CSM, 2/6/2014 5:52:22 AM
Thanks Colin for the comment. Absolutely - a simple 'Thank you' or 'good job' from the PO goes a long way!

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