The Perfect Product Owner

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I’ve been working on a client project where my role has been to coach a newly-hired product owner and help get a brand-new feature team running.

The chap who was hired to fill the product owner role came to the team with a lot of business domain knowledge but almost no experience with Agile methods or the nuts and bolts of software development. Over the past six weeks I have been his project buddy and advisor, educating him in bits and pieces on the company, the ecosystem, and everything I know about Agile. The only thing I haven’t needed to teach him was the business domain. And it turns out that’s huge.

Because the product owner is the bridge between the business and the feature team(s), many organizations struggle to find the right mix of skills needed to fill this role. So far I have coached three product owners, and none of them came to the role with Agile or software development skills. Two of them were military officers, and one was previously in a partner relationship management role at another technology company. All of them have made a very successful transition to the product owner role. I’d like to take 100% credit for that, but I probably can’t. So what did all of these guys bring to the table that made them succeed?

  • Leadership experience – Product owners don’t generally directly manage teams, but they have to be able to help create a cohesive feature team and inspire other people to share their vision. People who have a track record of leading teams or projects have a much better chance of success than someone who simply has great technical skills.
  • Tolerance for ambiguity – Product owners are often given very little information to start with. Often it’s “go in that general direction” and then you have to run with that. People who have worked in start-ups, non-profit organizations, autonomous roles within larger organizations, or in the military are often skilled at functioning independently.
  • Analytical skills – This sounds like a no-brainer, but “analytical” is one of those terms that can mean almost anything or nothing. Every resume claims this skill. But what does this really mean? To be able to piece together a big-picture view from incomplete information, to be able to sort relevant information from noise, to understand the difference between the superficial and core information, needs, and objectives. It’s not being afraid to ask “why” until you get to an answer that makes sense.
  • Communication – This is probably the most important skill of all. It’s not just about being able to write coherent meeting notes either. Communication is all about being able to read the audience and respond to their needs. Whether that audience is a group of software developers who are looking for greater clarity on the requirements, a group of executives looking for ways to cut costs, or an external customer who doesn’t understand or care about your internal processes, the PO is constantly communicating with a very diverse group of stakeholders. His skill at this will have a huge impact on his effectiveness in the organization.

When I scan job postings on social media for product managers or product owners, I usually see: Fast paced environment! Self-starter! 5 years of industry experience! Master’s degree in our specific field! It sounds like something from a Dilbert cartoon, honestly. But how do you find out in the interview process if your potential product owner has the skills you REALLY need? Just because a person presents well in an interview doesn’t mean much, as almost all companies have learned the hard way. Is it just luck? Do you give real-life scenarios in an interview to see how the candidate responds? Some companies are moving towards paying candidates to perform an actual work task in order to evaluate their skills. It’s hard for me to imagine how that would play out when recruiting product owners. What do you think?

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