A coaching colleague of mine approached me with some questions for a university class he was asked to do on Product Ownership. I got the impression the lecture was for a Software Engineering class that was being introduced to Agile Methods in general and the Scrum Product Owner role specifically.

Here are the five questions and my answers:

1.     How do you align the business direction (roadmap) with the product backlog and user stories?

You don’t. The Product Roadmap (items, epics, themes) should generate User Stories for the teams Product Backlog. There should be a parent-child relationship between the two.

2.     What all do your teams have in their product backlogs.

If you listen to the advice in my Scrum Product Ownership book…everything. I often say “All Work” necessary to meet a project or product deliverable (release) should be articulated in the backlog. It should be prioritized, sized, and contrasted against all other work. I think doing less than this breaks your transparency and visibility.

3.     What are some of the biggest challenges with the role of the Product Owner?

I typically see two most often. First, is not taking the role seriously enough – so not investing in full-time Product Owners per team. Far too often organizations short shrift how challenging the role is and they overload the Product Owners with too many teams and backlogs. The second challenge is skill-set or training related. The role is inherently very difficult. Please reference my 4 Quadrants of Product Ownership model to gain a fundamental understanding of the broad and deep nuance of the role.

4.     What do you consider beginning, intermediate and advanced techniques in the Product Owner role?

I don’t like this question. I don’t think in terms of different levels of techniques. I think the basic tool-set of a Product Owner as required for all PO’s. Of course their experience changes the effectiveness and usage over time, but I want Product Owners to have a full, complimentary toolset coming into the role.

5.     What are typical organizational titles/groups/departments that become Product Owners?

I think Product Owners can come from anywhere. Most typically I see them come from either the Product Management or Business Analysis functions. But I’ve seen virtually all sorts of role assignments. I think the real key is to (1) review the 4 Quadrants, (2) identify the core strengths of the Product Owner, and (3) augment their weaknesses with others.

What he didn't ask

As I replied to the request, it struck me that there might be some fundamental questions he didn’t ask about critical aspects to the role. I often do this; look for what wasn’t asked as an indication of understanding and context for the person I’m collaborating with.

I thought I might ask them myself…

What are the critical strengths of the Product Owner role?

I think the ability to be inclusive is incredibly important. I often joke that a good Product Owner should focus on making their entire team “mini-Product Owners” in order to create the best products. I’m looking for the PO to share their understanding of the customer and their needs across the team. So the team is focused on solving the customer problems rather than simply delivering a set of epics or user stories.

In his Product Owner role video, Henrik Kniberg makes the point that the most important word for the Product Owner is “No”. He says that saying yes to features is quite easy and we’re all good at it. It’s picking “what not to do” that differentiates the PO and highlights their balanced understanding of the customers needs vs. their teams’ capacity.

A final strength is being a Storyteller, or in other words, a great communicator. And its a 360 degree role, communicating downward to the team, outward to organizational peers, and upward to customers and stakeholders. Solid Product Owners leverage the power of transparency in everything they do, but they don’t count on it solely to communicate their progress and impediments. They personally take on the role of Storyteller for their backlog, team, decision-making, and results.

Does the Product Owner play a role in motivating their team?

I think the answer is – Yes. Or hell, yes! But how do they do that is the next question?

I think a big part of the Product Owner role is establishing the mission and vision for their teams work efforts. Spending time explaining the customer, their needs, and the role the teams’ efforts will play in meeting those needs. Setting a tone of not just delivery, but customer satisfaction and problem solutions.

In the first question above, there was talk about connecting the Roadmap to the Backlog. What was missing in that question were the:

  • Vision of the Product Owner
  • Teams Mission
  • Customer personas – so that the team can ENVISION the customer’s challenges and needs
  • Permission to experiment and learn about how best to solve these needs
  • Intangibles, perhaps things that weren’t even asked for, that would delight the customer

It’s helping the team to understand these aspects and then to deliver “towards them” that I think can be truly motivational and inspirational.

What the most important aspect of a “healthy” Product Backlog?

I think it’s BALANCE, I.e. not having too much of anything in the backlog. When I review backlogs I look for collections of things represented in the backlog – beyond simply a list of user stories. I look for things being considered like: dependencies, technical complexity, architecture, quality and testing, defect repairs, innovation and experimentation.

I have a term for backlogs too heavily laden with a stream of features – I call it Feature-itis. You want to avoid this at all costs in your Product Backlogs.

Wrapping Up

I’ll have to follow-up with my colleague and see how the class went. Minimally, I’m glad that this important role is open for discussion in a university context. I’ll share any results I discover in a later article.

But what about you? If you were doing this exercise, what questions do you think he (and I) missed? I’d love to hear from you—both your questions AND the potential answers.

Stay agile my friends,


Oh and BTW, you can get a PDF copy of my Scrum Product Ownership book by joining my mailing list here: http://goo.gl/3SFQci