Advice for New Product Owners

We’re all nervous when we’re trying something new, leaning into that discomfort is how we grow

It can be nerve wracking to step into a new role, especially one that’s as important as a product owner. Since our internal Scrum Alliance product owners have experience that ranges from just-new to 20+ years, we asked them to share advice for those who are taking on the PO role for the first time, and throughout their career. 

Here’s what they have to say...

Keep the big picture in mind

The role of the PO is likely the most difficult and pivotal role in scrum. It is not for the faint of heart, as you have to say no to so many things so you can say yes to the things that are the most important. The role isn’t about keeping people happy, it’s about driving value delivery. 

Understand the “why?” behind the work. Your biggest job is to pass product vision along to your team. 

I don’t know if I do the product owner job by the book. But here’s what I do know. I need to come to the teams with a firm grasp of the problem, not the solution. I depend on the team to come up with the best ways to solve the customer’s problem, then work with them to slice that idea small enough to deliver, measure, and adapt in a sprint. I’ve found that once the team understands the problem, they are so much smarter than I am at imagining solutions. 

Know the difference between “nice to have” and “need to have”

In everything, start with the customer in mind. On our team, we call that person our hero. What is the hero struggling with? How will this story make our hero’s job easier, help our hero get a job, or help our hero be more effective? Those are the questions that drive us. 

Know the problem(s) that your users are trying to solve. Understand their domains and usage contexts. Give them solutions that fit their context and solve their problems. An unused, excellent feature is a useless, valueless feature.

Become an expert on the usage of your product. Know every feature, function, shortcut, work around, and bug. 

Conversations are your greatest gift. Talk to anyone and everyone to understand your product’s needs. Users, vendors, team members, stakeholders, random people on the street … talk to anyone who can help. 

Be confident in what you do know and don’t stress about what you don’t know if you don’t have a technical background. Ask questions and listen so you can learn as much as possible. A large part of the job is being able to communicate effectively with technical and non-technical people as well as stakeholders.

Handle your backlog

Don’t overfill your backlog. It’s not a place to capture every thought or idea about the product. Keep the signal to noise ratio as low as possible. That said, there is no perfect number of stories; but a good rule of thumb is that if backlog management requires more time than product discovery, then you may have too many PBIs.

Don’t get married to your product backlog items, treat them as hypothesis statements. You believe that a customer will use/need/want that feature, but you can’t really know. Slice it as thin as possible and test that hypothesis. Fast feedback is your best tool, and celebrate when you learn that you were wrong. 

One of the things I remind my team all the time is that we don’t have to deliver perfection, just the next increment of value to the customer. 

Related: 6 Tips for Improving Backlog Refinement 

Value your relationships

One of the most important parts of a product owner’s job is to build and maintain relationships. In order to be truly effective, POs must create mutual trust and respect with their teammates and stakeholders. 

Be transparent. Be straightforward with your team and honest with your stakeholders. Listen and be receptive to the truth and to answers you might not want to hear. When you do this, you’ll earn trust and, just as importantly, learn what you need to know to be successful. 

Stakeholder management and customer contact should fill your calendar. If you aren’t talking to customers and getting stakeholder input constantly, you run the risk of building the wrong features. 

Become a solid pair with your scrum master. They need to be your ally in helping to communicate and refine stories with the team. You two have really different roles and may often be in tension. Having a strong working relationship will help you and your team meet your organization's goals. 

Be available for your team. You are a full-fledged member of the team, be there for them when they need you. Part-time is not enough time. 

Conclusion: Understand that you matter

As a product owner, you are (or will become) the perfect balance of business strategist, analyst, project designer, and above all, the conduit for great relationships and outcomes. It may not always be easy, but product ownership is one of the most integral and important roles. Be confident and open to learning. That’s the key to success.

Related Article: Advice for New Scrum Masters 


Stay Connected

Get the latest resources from Scrum Alliance delivered straight to your inbox