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Desirable Characteristics of a Product Owner

Choosing the right product owner is crucial for any Scrum project. Successful product owners I have worked with share the characteristics that follow. Since the product owner is a new role, individuals often need time and support to transition into the role and to acquire the necessary skills. A common challenge is finding employees with the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge and experience to do the job well. (I'll discuss transitioning to the role and developing product owners in Chapter 6.)

Visionary and Doer

Writer Jonathan Swift observed, "Vision is the art of seeing things invisible." The product owner is a visionary who can envision the final product and communicate the vision. The product owner is also a doer who sees the vision through to completion. This includes describing requirements, closely collaborating with the team, accepting or rejecting work results, and steering the project by tracking and forecasting its progress. As an entrepreneur, the product owner facilitates creativity; encourages innovation; and is comfortable with change, ambiguity, debate, conflict, playfulness, experimentation, and informed risk taking.

Leader and Team Player

"Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion," says Jack Welch, GE's former chairman and CEO. The product owner is just such a leader. As the individual responsible for the product's success, the product owner provides guidance and direction for everyone involved in the development effort and ensures that tough decisions are made. For instance, should the launch date be postponed or should less functionality be delivered? At the same time, the product owner must be a team player who relies on close collaboration with the other Scrum team members, yet has no formal authority over them. We can think of the product owner as primus inter pares, first among peers, regarding the product.

The dual nature of the product owner as a leader and team player is a hard line to toe. By no means should the product owner dictate decisions, yet at the same time neither should the product owner be indecisive or employ a laissez-faire management style. Instead, the individual should act as a shepherd for the innovation process, guiding the project and seeking team consensus in the decision-making process. Making decisions about the product collaboratively ensures the team's buy-in, leverages the team's creativity and knowledge, and results in better decisions. Working this way requires facilitation and patience because team members often have to disagree and argue first before a new solution can be synthesized from the different ideas and perspectives. Kaner and his coauthors provide useful information on collaborative decision making and related facilitation techniques (1996).

Communicator and Negotiator

The product owner must be an effective communicator and negotiator. The individual communicates with and aligns different parties, including customers, users, development and engineering, marketing, sales, service, operations, and management. The product owner is the voice of the customer, communicating customer needs and requirements and bridging the gap between "the suits" and "the techies." Sometimes this means saying no and other times negotiating a compromise.

Empowered and Committed

The product owner must have enough authority and the right level of management sponsorship to lead the development effort and to align stakeholders. At mobile.de, Germany's biggest online auto marketplace, senior management selects product owners, provides support, and acts as their escalation partner. This close collaboration has allowed the management team to better understand the progress of the individual projects and to kill unsuccessful projects early.1

An empowered product owner is essential for leading the effort to bring the product to life. The product owner must have the proper decision-making authority—from finding the right team members to deciding which functionality is delivered as part of the release. The product owner must be someone who can be entrusted with a budget and at the same time has the ability to create a work environment that fosters creativity and innovation. The product owner must be committed to the development effort. A successful product owner is confident, enthusiastic, energetic, and trustworthy.

Available and Qualified

The product owner must be available and qualified to do a great job. Being the product owner is usually a full-time job. It is important to give product owners enough time to sustainably carry out their responsibilities. If the individual is overworked, the project's progress suffers and the resulting product may be suboptimal. Being adequately qualified usually requires an intimate understanding of the customer and the market, being passionate about the user experience, and the ability to communicate needs and describe requirements, to manage a budget, to guide a development project, and to be comfortable working with a cross-functional, self-organizing team.

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