Product Owner: Quick Tips for the Hardest Job in Scrum

When I first began my journey as an agile coach, I was focused on helping a great woman who was starting her path as a Product Owner. She had the business knowledge and a lot of support from her management. She still had a day job, though, and I don’t think she or her manager quite realized the level of involvement needed for the Product Owner role – what I often call “the hardest job in Scrum”. But she (and I) learned some quick tips that helped her be successful.

Product Owner Tip #1: Make Time

Clock
Tick tock

The biggest tip I can offer Product Owners in-the-making is to understand that THIS is your day job. Being a PO is a big commitment and cannot be done (successfully) with part-time effort. Think about the responsibilities of Product Ownership:

  • Create backlog items/user stories
  • Prioritize the backlog (both product and sprint backlogs)
  • Conversations with the delivery team on work in progress (see my post here for info)
  • Accept work as it’s completed by the team
  • Coordinate with business owners and stakeholders on deliverables and priorities
  • Participate (and facilitate) Sprint Review ceremonies
  • etc.

Does that sound like a part-time job? No, not at all. Can you be a Product Owner and still do other work? Absolutely. But I’d strongly caution you to make sure that your manager knows about the commitment here.

Product Owner Tip #2: Be Available

One of the biggest faux pas I’ve seen with Product Owners is that they show up for Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning but then don’t attend any other ceremonies. It’s critical that, as PO, you are at all of the ceremonies. Questions can (and should!) come up during those ceremonies and it’s imperative that the Product Owner is present to answer them (or commit to getting an answer quickly).

The 2nd C of User Stories is “Conversation”. If a Product Owner isn’t available, how can the delivery team have those conversations? How can they really understand how what they’re building meets the customer or business need? Being available – by making time – is how teams get better.

Product Owner Tip #3: Be Flexible

Flexibility
Flexibility Matters

Bob Galen wrote a post earlier warning Product Owners to not bully their teams. As a PO, your role is to bring the customer or business needs to the team. Leave the “how” up to the team. Be respectful of their estimates and their decisions. But the biggest thing is to be flexible.

When we come into a situation with expectations, it’s very common that some (or all) of those expectations are not met. We get discouraged. Some people get angry. But if Product Owners can come to Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning meetings with the ability to be flexible, those ceremonies will flow well. So what does flexibility look like for a Product Owner?

In this case, flexibility means being willing to work with the team to reprioritize or break apart stories to structure the work better. There are times when doing one story before another can provide a jumpstart on the second one. Or that one story is better aligned to another one. And while those stories may not be slated for the same sprint due to priorities, a good PO can make those trade-offs and be flexible about getting what the business or customer needs.

@ Velocity

Many of Velocity Partners’ Product Owners are on the client-side. One of my responsibilities is to offer coaching and advice to our clients. And I will always recommend that Product Owners follow at least these three quick tips. I always encourage our teams to make sure that they are not afraid to reach out to the Product Owner to ask questions, get clarification, or get guidance on how we build our client’s products.

Closing Thoughts

Product Ownership is the hardest job in Scrum. Without a firm (but flexible) hand from an available Product Owner, the team will flounder and the product will fail. Make sure you’re giving the role sufficient support in your organization and your teams will soar.

Felix entrenamiento, mis amigos! (Happy coaching, my friends!)

Bill.

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Bill DeVoe