3 Elusive Qualities of a Great Product Owner

When it comes to guiding the development of a product and ensuring you’re building what the user actually needs, a product owner is the most important hire for the team. There’s just one problem: A good product owner can be really hard to find. The characteristics that make a good product owner are elusive, but here are three qualities you should prioritize in your search.

It may sound overly simplistic, but products generally succeed or fail in correlation to the effectiveness of product ownership on the team. This occurs primarily because we underappreciate the importance—and the difficulty—of product ownership aspects in the product creation process.

The role of a product owner covers the full spectrum, from discovery to delivery and more, and therefore the choice of this role is far more important than the coach or other team members.

However, we tend to think of software applications as being primarily technical objectives. Our focus is too often on the quality and ability of the engineers, architecture, and design, and we spend a disproportionate amount of time on process, optimization, and efficiency. We tend to forget that the most common and most consistent failure of all software products is that no matter how good the quality, how optimized or efficient it is, or how good the engineers are who built it, if you build the wrong item, it is a failure. A perfectly designed but unused product is worthless.

History is full of great products that missed the mark. How many apps have you downloaded to your phone that you stopped using after the first thirty seconds? Not to mention the myriad products that fail to ever get in the hands of customers and that we’ve never heard about.

Internal IT products are often culprits of this misconception, as the assumption seems to be that because the customers are forced to use the product, we don’t have to actually ask them what they want or how they will use it. We often end up building great products that don’t fulfill the actual user need.

Consider this quote by management consultant Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

When it comes to guiding the development of a product and ensuring you’re building what the user actually needs, a product owner is the most important hire for the team. Getting the right person in this role is crucial to the success of the product.

There’s just one problem: A good product owner can be really hard to find. The characteristics that make a good product owner are elusive, but here are three qualities you should prioritize in your search.

1. Differentiating what is needed from what is wanted

A significant part of the product owner role is identifying what is needed to solve users’ problems, fulfill their needs, enable them to be better at their job, or maximize their fun or relaxation. The role is about understanding the problem and creating a vision of how that problem could be solved—not the technical solution, but the true need.

The reason this skill is so tough is that users rarely know what they need. Typically, a user’s vision is constrained by what they currently do. As a result, many products become reworks of a paper system or an old framework.

A poor product owner gives a customer what they want or what they asked for, but a good product owner listens and watches so they can blend wants and needs in order to solve the customer’s problem and give them what they truly need.

This point leads us to an interesting quote by Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

We often see backlogs full of stories that are really just unfiltered customer requests. It is easier to do what the customer asks for, but to find what is actually needed typically requires experimentation, feedback, conversations, and observation.

This can also happen when department managers decide what their team needs or wants without involving them in the discussion. But a good product owner will spend time with the users of the product and see how they use it. A product owner with creativity, initiative, and vision to create a great product is worth their weight in gold.

2. Understanding what is required to create a successful application

Perhaps because of the emphasis on point number one, companies often choose someone from the business side to become the product owner, as their knowledge of the business is seen as the primary—and, in many cases, the only—qualification for the role. And worse yet, they are often asked to do this role in addition to their normal job.

However, a great product owner understands what to build but is also familiar with the development process. They understand the ebbs and flows, implications of technical debt, and automation and testing. They also understand how crucial it is to have working software in the hands of users as soon as possible.

Generally speaking, business product owners often lack this knowledge and experience, and they will mistakenly perceive a desire for a fully working product rather than appreciate the value of early feedback. Many try to include every imaginable feature rather than working toward a minimum feature set to get feedback and derive value early.

What would you rather have: an experienced product owner with zero business knowledge, or an expert in the business with zero software delivery experience? Before you answer, consider this: Business knowledge can be gleaned from effective conversation, observation, and feedback. However, the understanding of a good agile software development lifecycle is far harder to learn, and there is no substitute for experience.

Typically, the best products result from experiments, reviews, and feedback, along with a willingness to be flexible in responses. The product owner sets priorities and interprets the vision, so they have more influence on the product creation than anyone. Their choice of priorities can profoundly impact the value and quality of the product. If they lack understanding of the importance of testing, feedback, and good software principles, it can lead to conflict and disharmony in a team.

3. Communicating effectively with both technical and business stakeholders

Finally, there is a need for effective communication. The importance cannot be overstated.

A great product owner listens, observes, probes, and reflects. They ask for feedback, read between the lines, and watch body language. When it comes to understanding the user, they have great attention to detail and look intently for pain and pleasure points. They look for the best ways to serve their users.

Most of us think of communication as speaking, but for a product owner, watching and listening are also very important. Having empathy with the user and the customer is critical. It’s imperative to understand their domain and to communicate using their terms. If you don’t understand the terms, then it’s essential to develop an attitude of being attentive and to ask questions to show they’re interested, learning, and engaged.

A great product owner learns to say no respectfully and in a way that conveys understanding of what’s being asked. With that, a great product owner should not be seen as an obstacle or a hurdle, but a steward of good decisions. The word “no” should be delivered in a way that leaves the customer feeling confident that this decision is right, even if it is not what was initially wanted, and that the product owner will deliver the best product within the parameters.

Conversely, if the product owner chooses to say yes, they should be able to convey the implications of that. Product owners should have a number of tools that can help people understand their decisions.

The product owner must also communicate with the development team, and they must understand technical development terms so that they can have a full grasp of the technical implementation, even if they do not have authority over how things get done. In other words, they should have a vested interest in understanding the process.

They also need to be able to communicate business needs and business terms in a meaningful way to the development team. Being respected and understood by both the business and the technical team is a major feat, and as we know, any cloistered group speaks in jargon that only they understand. These audible signs that have to be explained to an unfamiliar outsider can demoralize the team. It’s important not to underestimate this ability.

Product owners also need the creativity to communicate design ideas, or, if the ideas come from others, the scope to understand that creativity and express it to the business and technical teams. The same can be said about major stakeholders (excluding users). This group generally funds the product, and they want to see progress and good stewardship of their investment, so they may ask for forecasts and even press for commitments.

And if a product is to be sold, it is likely that the product owner will need to be involved in sales and marketing, which brings a whole host of other skills and communication issues to bear, including understanding the implication to the market.

Taking this all into account, we have now loaded our product owner with the need to communicate with senior people who make financial decisions, to express risk and forecasts in a manner that is concise but meaningful, and to be transparent, informative, and confident. A product owner should stand their ground in the face of authority and speak truth to power.

In short, a great product owner is a master communicator, has an insatiable desire for knowledge, and thrives to understand and to be understood.

Seek and Appreciate Great Product Owners

The skill set of a great product owner is far-reaching and varied, yet the good ones make it look easy. If you have a mindset suited to product ownership, it is likely you already have good communication skills and enjoy learning more domains.

It is also likely you are the sort of person who thrives on the delivery of a product and revels in the feedback, enjoys flexibility and change, and is unmoved at the thought of redoing something to get it right.

Solving problems is a thrill, and being able to see beyond the obvious, draw out information from users, and then present something great can be a joy. This doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t incredibly difficult, overwhelming at times, sadly unappreciated, and maybe underpaid. But a great product owner will succeed despite these pain points.

The product owner is the lynchpin of a great product, and we should be seeking them out and rewarding them appropriately. You will be amazed at what can be achieved with the right person in that role.

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.