5 Ways to Be an Effective Product Owner in Agile Environments

There’s an undeniable pattern in most projects: The product owner is the key person who can make or break the project.

We’ve already covered the five most important product owner skills. This post focuses on handling the most common situations product owners face in agile environments.

What is an agile product owner?

A product owner has a role that is unique to the agile framework. As the liaison between the business and development teams, a product owner must be the bridge that helps an organization achieve its goals.

A product owner carries out the vision for the product, defining project criteria, and managing the product backlog.

Here are the top five ways that any product owner can level up their performance and lead effectively:

1. Remember that leadership results in teamwork

Projects with multiple or high-level product owners are more challenging and likely to fail than succeed.

Why is having multiple product owners not effective? Because if you have multiple product owners, who makes decisions? To whom should stakeholders turn? To whom should developers and the Scrum Master address their questions?

What happens if the product owners have two opposing views? What happens if they don’t get along? Who is really responsible and the actual owner of the product?

Having more product owners in a project increases the chances of having conflicting assumptions and viewpoints. In addition, multiple product owners can cause unnecessary confusion when making decisions and defining best practices.

The “right” product owner should be available to fully own the product and dedicate most of their time to it.

Why is a C-level executive, VP, or manager ineffective as a product owner? While having a C- or VP-level product sponsor is helpful, people in these roles rarely make effective agile product owners. Their primary work function is to manage whole departments and multiple processes.

High-level product owners will not be able to zoom in on one specific project and product to make it successful. Product owners attend every meeting, involve themselves in the minute details of the project, and manage everything. These are unreasonable expectations, and it is unlikely that a high-level manager will have the time to do everything.

A product owner should dedicate anywhere from 60 to 100 percent of their time and effort to a project to succeed. What will happen with their other duties and work if the upper-level manager owns a product? Instead, the upper management should carefully pick the product owner and empower them to make the right decisions.

The “right” product owner should be available to:

  • Fully own the product and dedicate most of their time to it.
  • Talk with all stakeholders and communicate clearly to the Scrum Master and developers.
  • Cleary convey a vision of the final product that guides the development process.
  • Prioritize features and functionalities while communicating the reasoning behind all decisions.

2. Manage stakeholders by building trust

Product owners’ most common challenge is managing stakeholders and their expectations.

To effectively represent the stakeholders to the development team, the product owner must earn their trust. They must believe that the product owner will express their needs to the developers and know what is “critical” to develop.

So, how do you gain the trust of the stakeholders? Like the Scrum Master, listen and learn from the stakeholders.

Do you know the stakeholders already? If so, you might already have their trust. If you don’t know them, then get to know them right away.

Start with the first and easy step of introducing yourself, your role, and your expectations. The second step is to ask them questions about their job and their needs. Listen to their frustrations about and expectations for the new solution. People are more than ready to talk about their processes and share their expertise.

To effectively represent the stakeholders to the development team, the product owner must earn their trust.

Sometimes, you will encounter detractors who are against the new product and unwilling to change and work with you. The most basic strategy in dealing with detractors is to go around them.

However, if they have valid points, you should listen and consider their feedback. Just make sure they do not distract you from your primary mission, which is to build a successful product.

3. Make sure everyone understands the storyboard

The storyboard in Agile development contains your requirements and what the developers have to build. If the stories are confusing, unclear, or not effectively prioritized, the project won’t be successful. Thus, product owners should focus on managing the product backlog and sprints.

When stakeholders submit feedback, make sure to:

  • Review each feedback item carefully.
  • Only accept feedback that is clearly defined and has business value.
  • Review and reject all other feedback.

To get clean feedback and stories, show the stakeholders what great feedback and stories are supposed to look like.

After the kickoff of a project, hold the stakeholders’ hands for the first few weeks. You should walk them through the story creation and the feedback process.

At demo time, show them the link between their stories and what has been developed. The more stakeholders familiarize themselves with the project, the more attention you can spend on improving the process.

4. Product owner skills develop with practice

We’ve written about the 5 must-have product owner skills, but no one starts as a perfect agile product owner.

The agile framework rewards experience. Here’s a great post to help you think about the product canvas in Scrum methodology and sharpen your vision of product goals. Things like communication and how to delegate tasks will become more intuitive as you and your team grow together.

5. What makes a good product owner? Keep calm and automate on

As a product owner, you have to manage multiple people and their expectations, in addition to the whole product backlog. This is a lot of work that takes time and effort. Thus, do not be surprised if, at times, you feel overwhelmed.

If you do feel overwhelmed, take a break. Look at the big picture and enlist or ask others for help.

In addition, you should automate as many communication steps as possible. For example, you can either create templates in PowerPoint or use tools for the following project steps:

  • Kick off the project and clearly define the goals.
  • Establish clear communication channels and meet expectations.
  • Create a weekly template to showcase the status of the project to stakeholders.
  • Create a workflow and process for weekly or bi-monthly product demos and feedback gathering.

Last but not least, ask for help when needed. Ask for support from upper management if you don’t feel empowered to make the necessary decisions. Ask the Scrum Master for help with the product backlog and development process.

As a product owner in an agile framework, you have a lot of responsibility and work to do. But all the hard work will pay off when the project is done and the product is out.