The Product Owner, or PO, role is rooted in the Agile methodology, alongside Scrum Master and the Development Team - the triumvirate of Agile. Many of the most successful and innovative companies in the world rely on this methodology to develop their products. The likes of Microsoft, Google, Ericsson, Philips and Spotify, to name a few, have been using Agile for many years, to deliver at scale across their organisations. However, the role of the PO doesn't have to be limited to this environment. The skillset required can be useful across any organisation, irrespective of whether they have adopted Agile or not.
POs still remain something of an enigma - How is it different to being a project manager? Isn’t it basically a senior business analyst? Sounds like a lead developer to me…?
The answer to these questions is that, while the PO may share many qualities needed for these roles, and indeed others, they are very decidedly not the same. The PO is its own beast. It’s a role that’s relatively well understood in the context of Agile development, but less so in other contexts. A lot of people have what it takes to become a good PO, but very few have what it takes to become a great one, and the traits of a great PO can be just as valuable in a non-Agile environment.
The customer should be at the heart of everything the PO does: the PO should know what the customer wants before even they know it. The oft-quoted Steve Jobs once said ‘[y]ou've got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology - not the other way around.' By putting the customer at the forefront and by gaining an understanding of the current experience and pain points, the PO is able to ensure that the product features address the customer need. Perhaps equally important is the ability to identify features that do not address a customer need, so as to avoid wasting valuable development time. The PO must represent the voice of the customer to the business, working to define the product in customer-centric terms, and deliver value for the customer and the business.
A great PO is both a team player and a team leader. They’re not afraid of jumping in where needed and getting their hands dirty: versatility and adaptability are hugely important. A day in the life of a PO is never the same and will differ depending on the stage in the product lifecycle. For example, what is needed to define, design and deliver the product will vary considerably. The PO will also lead through influence, not authority. They must be able to communicate the product vision to the team, inspiring and driving them to work towards that vision from the start to the end of the product lifecycle.
Communication and empathy are key attributes. The PO bridges the gap between the team and its stakeholders, serving as a proxy for stakeholders to the team and as a representative of the team in front of the stakeholders. It’s crucial that the PO is able to communicate with the development team and with stakeholders in a way that makes sense to both. The PO should be able to put themselves in another’s shoes – to understand what it is that motivates them and what keeps them awake at night.
POs obsess about the customer, ensuring that every element of what is built gets delivered and used. Knowing your customer and their needs is the surest way to create great products. And great products are the cornerstone of successful businesses.