Product owners (POs) play a crucial role in software development, as they often are those who are responsible for business deliveries. Deniss Ojastu, Partner and Head of Business Area at Helmes, weighs in on six essential qualities a product owner needs and explains why they are crucial to the success of a development project.
When a company needs an IT system, whether to be developed in-house or by an external development partner, they typically have a product owner (sometimes called a product manager) involved in the process. The product owner acts as a connecting link between the business and development teams, ensuring their objectives are aligned and providing guidance in the development process. Occasionally, the role is shared by two persons or even a small team.
I have worked with dozens of product owners in my nine years at Helmes and realized the following – excelling as a PO is not a question of possessing specific technical skills or experience but rather a combination of personality traits and authority that allows the person to flourish in a complex environment with multiple stakeholders. Here are the six most essential components to excelling as a PO based on my experience.
6 Essential Components to Excelling as a Software Product Owner
1. Have the mandate to decide
An effective PO has the mandate to make decisions about the project budget and priorities. It means having the ability to say, ‘Yes, we need this feature and are ready to invest that money into it.’ If the PO doesn’t have the mandate, at minimum, they need to have a very clear understanding of who they need to ask and get the green light from ‒ and be able to secure the answers quickly. This ensures that the tech team does not get stuck at any point and can move ahead at full speed with the development.
2. Be good at selling your idea
A great product owner must be able to sell their ideas inside their organization, especially in larger companies. This means explaining to colleagues and superiors why something needs to be done and showing the potential impact on the business. This way, the PO can secure the budget and other resources (like people’s time) necessary for accomplishing the project goals.
3. Act as a single source of truth
Once our development team starts working on a project, we need the product owner to act as our ‘single source of truth’ representing their organization. Any business problem can be solved in multiple ways, and often, there are countless possibilities to build a software product. While we always try to outline and explain the various options, it’s ultimately up to the business to decide whether we opt for route A or B, and the PO is the person who needs to voice these answers.
If multiple persons split the PO role, typically, one of them takes the duty of providing the answers. In some instances, though, they may be able to divide their areas of responsibility so that we always know whom to turn to with a particular question.
4. Possess motivational power
The software development teams rarely have constant access to the CEO or founders (unless it’s a small company). The PO is then the main link to the business. Therefore we look to the PO not only for information and data but also for explanations on why something needs to be done and its broader impact. Knowing what they do is vital and makes quite a difference in the development team’s motivation ‒ as does receiving recognition for their efforts.
5. Be demanding yet objective
The PO’s role entails not only praising the development team for a good performance but also checking the progress, giving feedback, and holding the team accountable if they don’t deliver something as agreed. Therefore, an effective PO possesses inspirational power but also objective judgment and authority to demand results; this allows them to act as a good cop or a bad cop with the team, depending on the circumstances.
6. Understand the time/scope/quality constraints
Finally but crucially, the PO must understand the inherent constraints in the software development process. The classical project management triangle illustrates the relationship between three primary constraints in a project ‒ time, scope, and quality. Typically, you can strive for one or two of these qualities but not all three simultaneously.
For instance, if you want to build something fast, you must sacrifice either scope (what you will do) or quality (how will you do that). Sometimes that is perfectly fine (for example, you need an MVP to demonstrate how the product will work). However, if you want to build a quality product, you either need to take more time or reduce the scope. This simple yet powerful triangle can help the PO and the tech team make decisions in many situations.
These are the key qualities of the best product owners we have worked with. Yet to get the whole picture, it might also be worth looking at the other side of the story. Which behaviors should a great PO avoid in order not to jeopardize the collaboration?
What does an excellent PO not do?
First and foremost, a great PO needs to avoid being perceived as a micromanager ‒ someone who is very demanding about the slightest details but not motivational. Sometimes such behavior can also result from basing decisions and judgments on personal intuition rather than trying to understand how the development process works.
I am often asked how technical the product owner should be: how deep into the development process should they be able to delve? The simple answer is that it doesn’t matter. At Helmes, we successfully collaborate with POs of all kinds of technical backgrounds and aptitudes.
The important thing is for a PO to strive towards understanding the development process ‒ to a certain extent. I say to a certain extent because there is also a risk of overdoing it. Too much of ‘I-would-do-it-this-way’ soon becomes annoying for the tech team. Similarly, hearing comments like “I would have got it done in two days” can demotivate developers, particularly if delivered without understanding why executing some tasks takes time.
The road to excellence as a PO ‒ and beyond
To sum up, an excellent product owner has the power to decide on the path forward and priorities. They are good salesmen inside their organization (especially important in the case of larger organizations) and possess motivational power and authority rooted in objective judgment when liaising with the development team. Excelling as a PO does not depend on having a specific technical experience or diploma; a person’s traits and skills necessary for operating in a dynamic environment with multiple stakeholders are much more important.
Let me give you an example from a few years back when we worked with a large Northern European telecom company to exemplify the impact of an effective PO on achieving the company’s goal. The PO role in the project was shared by two colleagues, who succeeded in delivering the business objectives via leveraging our tech team.
In this project, we achieved goals that some people didn’t consider possible within the budget and schedule ‒ and the POs played a crucial role in this feat. In addition to being good salespeople inside their organization, they were equally motivating and demanding ‒ the perfect partners for the tech team. It’s not surprising that both of those colleagues have now become senior managers inside their organization. After all, excellent communication, project management, and leadership skills are the qualities that are in great demand throughout the business world.