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Book Q&A on Product Mastery

Key Takeaways

  • An appreciation of what behaviours and characteristics great product owners have in common
  • An insight into the thought processes of successful product owners
  • Some practical tools and techniques to help you build better products
  • A framework for self reflection and self-development as a product owner
  • An understanding of what makes the product owner role difficult and how you could make it easier

The best product owners are insatiably curious about their customers, they observe them in action, interview them, and collaborate with them and bring them into the development process, said Geoff Watts, Scrum and leadership coach. In his new book Product Mastery he explores what he calls “the difference between good and great product ownership”. 

InfoQ readers can download a sample chapter of Product Mastery.

InfoQ interviewed Geoff Watts about how product owners take decisions, what product owners can do to increase understanding of customer‘s needs and tap into the knowledge of team members and stakeholders, how to collaborate effectively with teams and stakeholders, and what product owners can do to develop their skills.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Geoff Watts: Since writing Scrum Mastery I was overwhelmed with the positive reaction I have received and, with that, I had a number of requests to write something similar for product owners. I felt that, while there is a lot of help out there for the practical side of the product owner role, there was very little on the relationship and psychological side of the role. For example, prioritisation is difficult and you can read about specific techniques but understanding what makes it difficult for us and how we might make it easier for us was another angle I wanted to explore.

InfoQ: Is this a book for product owners only?

Watts: No. Obviously my primary focus is for those people who are doing the role and want to work out how to do it better, or those who are about to start the role and want a bit of an insight. However, I believe the stories in here will be relatable to many people and could give ScrumMaster, developers, clients for example, an insight into what might be going on for their product owner. It might build some empathy for the person doing that very difficult job.

I hear many agile teams cite the product owner as the reason for why their job is so hard, frustrating or unrewarding. “Our product owner isn’t available enough” or “Our product owner can’t make their mind up” for example. Yet when we put ourselves in their shoes as it were, we can understand why things are difficult for them and perhaps how we can help.

So agile teams, ScrumMasters and stakeholders who interact with an agile team were my secondary personas if you like. I was primarily focusing on writing a book for product owners but there is a natural overlap where it can be useful for the whole team.

InfoQ: Product owners often have to decide with imperfect and incomplete information. How can they do that?

Watts: This is arguably one of the toughest parts of the product owner job but great product owners tend to have a number of strategies to help them. Great product owners:

  • Decide to make it easy. They try and reduce the number of options available to them and do everything they can to reduce the cost of a wrong decision
  • Decide HOW they will decide - is it based on profit, learning, speed of delivery etc? If they clarify what they are hoping to achieve with the decision it becomes a little easier.
  • Decide not to do it alone. They involve appropriate people in the decision-making process
  • Decide to be brave, accept perfection is impossible, and make the best decision they can while committing to evaluating it
  • Decide to believe in themselves.

InfoQ: When working in product owner teams, how can product owners know which decisions they can take themselves and when they need to involve other team members?

Watts: When working in a team, having a decision making process is essential. Given the huge number of decisions that a product owner may need to deal with, it is unrealistic for that person to be the sole decision maker. Even if there was enough time, having one person make all the decisions reduces the diversity, quality and engagement so the best product owners tend to work out a decision making process.

The first tactic is to identify the easy decisions—the ones that are low risk or low complexity and require little buy-in. Great product owners know how to identify simple decisions. They either make simple decisions quickly (when no one has a strong opinion either way) or they delegate these choices to someone else (when they desire increased stakeholder engagement and buy in).

For example, a product owner could decide the size and shape of the packaging for the product relatively quickly. However, if the product owner were to delegate responsibility for this decision to someone else, then that person suddenly has a much bigger stake in the product—and greater motivation to see that the product succeeds. In general, the more that people are involved in the decision-making process, the more engaged they are and the more bought-in they are to the decision.

Generating buy-in is equally important when product owners must rely on more than just their own authority for a course of action to be successful. For example, the product release date will likely affect many people. The more that each one of the affected parties has been included in the process of choosing a date, the more likely they are to ensure that the product releases on that date.

Because the release date affects so many people and has such an impact on the bottom line, it is arguably more critical and complex than deciding on the size and shape of the packaging. Therefore, most great product owners would typically adopt a strategy of collaboration rather than delegation when trying to choose the best release date. Collaboration requires more time, energy, diplomacy, and patience than deciding alone, though, so product owners can’t afford to make every decision through collaboration—it should be reserved only for those decisions that are complex and require a great deal of buy-in.

The final quadrant in the matrix is for decisions that are complex but don’t require much buy-in. An example here could be choosing which third-party products to integrate with or which technology to build the product on. In these situations, great product owners tend to adopt a “consult then decide” strategy. These are the decisions that are too risky to delegate, are not contentious enough to require buy-in, yet still require the advice of experts. For decisions like these, great product owners gather as much information and advice as they can and then make a decision.

InfoQ: Which suggestions do you have for increasing understanding of customer‘s needs?

Watts: In my experience the best product owners are insatiably curious about their customers and will observe them in action, they will interview them, they will collaborate with them and bring them into the development process.

A phrase I hear a lot is “our customers don’t know what they want until they see something they don’t want” and I find the best product owners will show their users something quickly so they can work out what they don’t like and what they do like. This can go against our instinct of waiting until we think we have got it right but great product owners work past that.

InfoQ: What can product owners do to tap into the knowledge of team members and stakeholders?

Watts: If I ask someone for a cup of tea, then the best I can really hope for is that I get a cup of tea. Maybe I get someone that really cares about what tea I like and how I like to take it but I still have a cup of tea. If, instead of asking for a cup of tea, I explain what my real need is then I open myself up to receiving solutions that I may never have imagined.

The collective intelligence and experience of a development team is huge. If I request a specific solution then, not only am I reducing the amount to which I can tap into that creativity, but I am also reducing the extent to which they feel engaged and bought into the solution. A cup of tea was MY solution. But if the goal is to have my thirst quenched then whatever solution the team come up with is OURS.

InfoQ: How can product owners encourage autonomy in teams that they are working with, while still keeping control on the product that is being developed?

Watts: This is essentially what the whole agile product development approach is about. The product owner focuses on the WHAT - the goal...the vision...the problem to be solved...the market opportunity - and why it is important or valuable. The great product owners then invite the team to work out HOW that goal will be met. Effectively the product owners says “I’ve identified this valuable product or service. This is what people want and why. Can you guys work with me and figure out a way we can make that happen?”

InfoQ: What can product owners do to collaborate effectively with teams and stakeholders?

Watts: The biggest thing here is make time for conversations. I know it is difficult because all product owners are busy but the great product owners ruthlessly prioritise the important areas that require collaboration, set some time aside to have those collaborative conversations,  then do whatever it takes to protect that time.

InfoQ: Any final suggestions for product owners to develop their skills?

Watts: I find that regular reflection is another key pattern that the best product owners have in common. The product owners that I coach 1-2-1 all benefit from taking time out and working through scenarios to analyse what happened, why it happened, what was going on for them and others in those moments. They apply the agile ethos that they use in product development to their own self-development. They set themselves a goal of becoming a great product owner, they do some research about what makes them great then take time to consciously practice improving one or more of those aspects that help them be great, then stop, reflect and go again.

About the Book Author

Geoff Watts has been a thought leader in the agile development space for many years and his books, trainings and coaching have helped thousands of teams across the world deliver better products more effectively. Geoff is the author of Scrum Mastery: From Good to Great Servant-Leadership and The Coach's Casebook: Mastering The Twelve Traits That Trap Us, a winner of the 2016 International Book Awards. He trains, coaches and mentors product owners, ScrumMasters and leaders. You can find his details at

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