Where Do Product Owners Come From?

People

A common challenge that we run into when working with organizations adopting Disciplined Agile strategies is helping them to identify and then coach people for the Product Owner (PO) role. This is often easier said than done due to the dearth of people with the required sill and mindset. In this blog we explore several strategies to address this challenge.

What Are You Looking for in a Product Owner?

Let’s begin with a review of the requirements for a good product owner:

  1. Analysis skills. POs need to be able to elicit requirements, explore them with stakeholders, negotiate priorities, facilitate modeling sessions, and in some cases document requirements.
  2. Decision-making authority. POs need to be empowered to prioritize the work of the team AND need to be comfortable with doing so.
  3. Good stakeholder contacts. POs need to know who to work with in the entire range of stakeholders, including both business and technical stakeholders.
  4. Full-time availability. This is a full time job, and at scale often proves to require more than a single person in the role (more on this in future blog postings). They’re available to the team on a daily basis.
  5. You want them in the position for several years. It takes time to grow an effective PO, depending on the background of the person we’ve seen people take between six and eighteen months to truly become comfortable in the role. This is a fairly large investment for your organization, so once you’ve made that investment its reasonable to want someone to stay in the role for at least a few years.
  6. They understand both your business domain and IT infrastructure. When taking a Disciplined Agile approach to product ownership the PO is responsible for representing all stakeholders, including both technical and business stakeholders. An implication of that is that POs should have a good understanding of the business domain and direction as well as your existing IT infrastructure and the direction that it’s going in. These understandings will be very important for prioritizing the work effectively.

Given the skill requirements it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that there is a shortage of candidates for the PO role in most organizations. Let’s explore your options.

Potential Sources

There are several potential sources of new product owners. The following table compares and contrasts these options. As you can see there is no ideal option available to you, and the reality is that you will likely need to obtain PO candidates from whatever source you can find.

Potential Source Advantages Disadvantages
Business analyst
  • Strong analysis skills
  • May have a very good understanding of the overall business
  • Likely to have good stakeholder contacts
  • Likely available full time
  • May not have decision making authority nor be comfortable with it
  • May not have an understanding of the technical infrastructure
Business executive
  • Has decision making authority and experience
  • Likely has a good understanding of the business
  • Unlikely to have the time to be a product owner
  • Many only be focused on a single line of business (LoB)
  • Unlikely to have a sufficient understanding of the technical infrastructure
  • Unlikely to have good analysis skills
New hire
  • You can potentially hire someone with the requisite skills
  • Available full time
  • They are unlikely to have the stakeholder contacts, or understanding of your organization, required to be effective (in the short term)
Project manager
  • Has decision making authority and experience
  • Might have decent analysis skills
  • Likely available full time

 

  • May not have a sufficient understanding of the technical infrastructure
  • May not have full range of stakeholder contacts
  • May not have good relationship with delivery team
Senior business person
  • Likely strong at a single LoB
  • May have decision making authority and experience
  • Likely to have very strong connections in the business
  • Rarely available full-time
  • May not have an understanding of the full range of business
  • Unlikely to have an understanding of the technical infrastructure nor connections with technical stakeholders
  • May not have analysis skills
System analyst
  • Strong analysis skills
  • Likely to have an understanding of the technical infrastructure and the overall business
  • Available full time
  • May not have strong connections with business stakeholders

An interesting strategy that we’ve found fruitful, albeit one that borders on ageism, is to look for potential candidates whom have been with your organization for a long time and who are five to ten years away from retirement. These are experienced people who therefore are likely to have a good understanding of your organization and where it’s headed, they very likely have a good contacts throughout your organization, and they’re very likely looking for an interesting and stable position that will last until they’re ready to retire.

Have a Clear Career Path

A critical success factor for attracting people to the role of PO is to have a clear and viable career path for them. If it isn’t obvious to people where they would go next after becoming a PO, or worse yet if becoming a PO is seen as a career dead end, then why would anyone choose to step into this role? One option for POs is to become product managers, if a product management function exists in your organization. Another career path is for POs to move into a senior business or IT leadership position. Being a PO gives people a deeper understanding of how IT fits into the larger organization and how it works in practice – key skills for anyone in senior management these days.

 

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