The world of Agile has been a welcomed change for those who lived through the Waterfall development days. Gone are the weeks, if not months, of business analysts drafting volumes of static requirements that only reflected an invalid state when the development team finally got around to working on the project.
When the Agile framework reached the common workplace, the business analyst was replaced with product owners and product managers. Their timelines were compressed into smaller, easier to digest, segments of work - providing solutions to the requester on a more routine cadence.
In this article, I am going to focus on five key traits that a superior product owner maintains as a part of their role in the Agile process.
1. Advocate for the Business
Wikipedia defines the product owner as representing "the product's stakeholders and (is) the voice of the customer." The product owner holds a seat at the table and the primary responsibility is to represent and advocate for the business. This includes the ability to author the necessary stories, with acceptance criteria that provide the goals that were met. There is a constant awareness of the outstanding requests and their associated priority - paving the way for the backlog to be prioritized and ready for grooming, if applicable.
A superior product owner not only understands the responsibilities of the business group but has a strong familiarity of their day-to-day tasks and the tools and processes currently being utilized. Not surprisingly, this same individual has likely performed a great amount of job shadowing, to take long walks in the customer's shoes.
2. Motivates the Agile Team and the Business
I have found that a product owner who keeps his colleagues motivated tends to match the mold of a superior product owner. This actually spans both spaces the product owner lives in on a daily basis. First, the product owner should be focused on keeping the Agile team motivated, by bringing excitement into the conversations that make up future segments of work. Maintaining this perspective tends to breed positive interaction from the team - keeping them motivated without much effort.
On the business side, having a product owner who is excited to plan, document, and solve issues projects the valid perspective that every story matters. People like to be heard and a superior product owner always listens first - giving the business a direct pipeline to the Information Technology resources that can make their needs a reality.
3. Has a Strong Vision
The superior product owner always has a strong vision, both in the short term and the long term. This means the stories that are quick to accomplish, provide value, and contribute to a larger vision. Through prioritization and organization, the superior product owner will orchestrate a series of releases that pave the way to providing continuous value to the business. These releases meet the needs of larger epics that are driven by the product owner, based on the needs of the organization.
4. Has a Handle on What Is Where
The attribute that is the most difficult to find for a superior product owner is the ability to always know where each story is within the development lifecycle. This means the product owner has a handle on where everything is at any given time. When approached by senior management, the superior product owner can not only provide a high-level summary of each story but the current state of the story as well. This goes beyond simply stating it is in development or in a test environment. Instead, details of the story's solution are known and understood.
5. Makes the Business Better
A superior product manager makes the business better through dedication and a driven personality. This in turn, only makes the agile team stronger as well. Beyond that, the superior product owner always looks for ways to make the business better - which often includes focusing on aspects that the business may not realize can be improved upon. The goal: always be looking for improvements that can add value, reduce cost, or enhance productivity.
Having a superior product owner is a rare situation. In the seven years that I have been working in Agile environments, I have had the pleasure of having one product owner that I would rate as truly superior. He met each of the traits listed above and our team thrived as a direct result of his mindset and attitude. Even when unexpected changes found their way into our project, this product owner kept his head high and worked through each and every challenge.
I hope you have the honor to work with a superior product owner in your career, at least once.