5 reasons that stop you from becoming a brilliant Product Owner

From time to time people ask me, what skills a person needs to become a good Product Owner (PO)? To be a mediocre or even a good Product Owner should be achievable to most of the people who are willing to try out this hat, though, to be a brilliant Product Owner is hard.

What are the core responsibilities of the Product Owner? The typical answers that usually come out are:

  • This person maintains product vision
  • Is an expert in the product
  • Manages product backlog and roadmap
  • Collaborates closely with the product team

These are all valid activities that majority of Product Owners will carry out just fine, but there are a lot more on top which usually comes from years of experience in the field. I will provide a few insights on what I have learned during my career in product management and I hope that you will find something to take away from this.

1. Don’t leave out strategy and vision

I still meet Product Owners who are not using strategy and vision to their benefit. Some don’t actually know the distinction between the two. The definition for vision and strategy is pretty simple:

  1. Vision should describe the goal on where you are moving
  2. The strategy should define the plan on how you are willing to fulfill the vision

Having a well-defined vision and strategy is the foundations for your product. If this foundation is not properly defined it will not matter how good you are doing with scope and backlog optimizations as you most probably will be moving not in the right direction anyway.

A clearly defined vision communicated to the team (and organization) also works as a motivational boost. Just make sure that your product foundations align with overall company vision and goals.

The only constant thing in product management is change. People change, markets change, businesses change, customers change and every product decision should be also subject to change and whenever this happens do not forget to review your strategy (and sometimes also your vision) to make sure that you are still on the right track.

2. Focus on solving actual customer problems instead of implementing solutions

Typically, your head will be full of ideas for improvements and possible new features. Though, most of the time you will have to say ‘No’ to most of these ideas. The hardest part for most Product Owners is deciding what actually needs to be implemented right now.

Brainstorming ideas is sure fun but it’s not the right thing to focus on when trying to deliver value to the customer. Do not base everything around interesting ideas of features, but make sure you have a clear understanding of the problem (or problems) you are trying to solve. For this, you need a clear understanding of the target audience, market sector, customer needs and customer pain points that your product is going to solve.

If you have been working in the same domain for quite some time it will be easy for you to make an assumption that you already have all the needed information. Usually, this assumption is far from the truth and I really recommend to talk to your stakeholders and customers. Be empathetic, feel their pain, listen a lot and this may sometimes lead to some best possible insights which otherwise you will not be able to acquire from any analytics dashboards. My best insights into the products I was working on usually came by listening to the customers while they were actually using the product.

As a Product Owner, you can easily fall in love with what has been built especially if the solution has a high awesomeness factor or it is something that excites you a lot. Though, you should always question if particular feature actually lifts customers satisfaction or hits your products success metrics. Do not be afraid to remove features if the case is the opposite. Always remember that less is more and that only critical features should be in the product.

3. Be willing to experiment a lot

Often you will hit situations when there will be no clear answer to a particular problem. In these situations, it is good to have a few tricks under your sleeve to test the biggest assumptions.

This could be a Design Sprint to test user experience, a simple prototype or a landing page with some traffic sent to it just for measuring purposes, a fake button to test customer intentions for a probable feature or an A/B test if the feature is not a huge one.

I did countless interviews myself in order to solve a particular problem by using a couple of prototypes with a slightly different solution. Though, I tend to rely on this type of user research less often as I noticed that sometimes it is hard to determine the signal from the noise. In my opinion, it is better to back your decisions with data as much as possible.

Keeping an experimental mindset and willingness to test things yourself should be very important for a brilliant Product Owner.

4. Use data to make better decisions

Data is one of the most effective tools a brilliant Product Owner could have and if you are not using it, you are doing it wrong. Here are a few ways on how you could base your decisions with the help of the data:

  • Think of a tracking plan before writing any code. Determine success KPI’s for the product
  • Use data to understand how the product is used by your customers right now
  • Communicate data to your team and other stakeholders. In this way, you will avoid endless discussions based on opinions
  • Use qualitative feedback combined with data to get a much clearer view on how the product is used

Use these data insights while you are talking to your team and other stakeholders. This will establish you as the source of truth for everything related to the product, market, customers or business in overall. Basing your decisions on the data will also dramatically strengthen your arguments and ability to influence.

Lastly, you should not rely on the data only. Data can give you the context that something might be not working as expected, but it will never answer you real motivations or expectations of the customer. Having data insights will always give you the what, but not the why. Also, make sure that your KPI’s are aligned with product vision and company goals.

5. Fully grasp team dynamics

Product Owner does not hire team members directly, but you are responsible for the success or failure of the product and also for the team which should deliver as one functioning unit.

Stand your ground and say no when it’s necessary to protect the product (or company) even if this decision will make you unpopular within your team, but take every opportunity to build and strengthen the bonds with your team. You should try to find the balance. Getting your team on your side is a soft skill that is really important for a Product Owner. Try to know them both personally and professionally. If you don’t spend time building relationships with your team and establishing yourself as the expert of the domain and the market then it is going to be hard for you to get the team to perform at their best.

Being a brilliant Product Owner also means fully grasping team dynamics. If you are just starting with a new team the least what you should try to do is taking an active leadership role by assigning tasks to everybody straight away. Try to understand the maturity and the skills of the team first. It can be that your new team was working on the product for a long time already so, in this case, try approaching the team from the mindset of a coach instead of by trying to support them on a daily basis by collaborating on all key decisions. With time and experience, you will not even notice how you will transition into a more active leadership role.

Image Credit: Gerd Altman from Pixabay

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