The 18 Characteristics of a Great Product Owner

Product-Owner1-300x156During a recent Product Owner training I gave the participants the assignment to complete the sentence “A great Product Owner…” The result was a nice overview of characteristics, skills and conditions necessary to fulfill this role in a great manner. In this blog post I’ll share the result, completed with a short explanation and some more ideas of my own.

A Great Product Owner…

  • Embraces the product vision. A great Product Owner represents the customers voice and creates a product vision together with the stakeholders. Every decision is taken with the product vision in mind. This ensures sustainable product development, provides clarity for the development team and increases the chances of product success drastically.
  • Exceeds the customers expectations. A great Product Owner truly understands the customers intentions and goals with the product and is able to outstrip its expectations. Customer delight is the ultimate goal!
  • Is empowered. A great Product Owner is empowered to take decisions related to the product. Sure, creating support for his decisions might take some time, but swiftly taking important decisions is a primary condition for a sustainable pace of the development team.
  • Orders the product backlog. A great Product Owner understands that the product backlog should be ordered. Hereby priority, risk, value, learning opportunities and dependencies are balanced with each other.
  • Prefers face-to-face communication. A great Product Owner understands that the best way to convey information is face-to-face communication. User stories are explained in a personal conversation. If a tool is used for backlog management, its function is to support the dialogue. It never replaces the good old-fashioned conversation.
  • Knows business models. A great Product Owner has a backpack full of valuable business models. He knows when to apply a specific model. Examples are Business Model Generation, Lean Startup or Impact Mapping. Based on these models he knows how to drive product success.
  • Shares experiences. A great Product Owner shares his experiences with peers. This might be within the organization, but also seminars and conferences are a great way to share experiences and gather knowledge. Of course writing down your lessons learned is also highly appreciated.
  • Owns user story mapping. A great Product Owner should master the concept of user story mapping. It’s a technique that allows you to add a second dimension to your backlog. The visualization enables you to see the big picture of the product backlog. Logically he should also know all the stuff Jeff Patton has created.
  • Has a focus on functionality. A great Product Owner has a focus on functionality, hours or even story points are less important. The goal of the Product Owner is to maximize value for the customer. Its the functionality that has value, therefore this is the main focus for the Product Owner.
  • Is knowledgeable. A great Product Owner has in depth functional product knowledge and understands the technical composition. For large products it might be difficult to understand all the details, but the Product Owner should always know the larger pieces of the puzzle and hereby make conscious, solid decisions.
  • Understands the domain. A great Product Owner understands the domain and environment he’s part of. A product should always be build with its context taken into account. This includes understanding the organization it concerns but also being aware of the latest the market conditions. Shipping an awesome product after the window of opportunity is quite useless.
  • Acts on different levels. A great Product Owner knows how to act on different levels. The most common way to define these levels is strategic, tactical and operational. A Product Owner should know how to explain the product strategy at board level, create support at middle management and motivate the development team with their daily challenges.
  • Is available. A great Product Owner is available for the stakeholders, the customers, the development team and the Scrum Master. Important questions are answered quickly and valuable information is provided on time. The Product Owner ensures his availability never blocks the progress of the development team.
  • Is able to say ‘no’. A great Product Owner knows how and when to say no. This is probably the most obvious one but nonetheless also the most difficult one to master. Saying yes to a new idea or feature is easy, it’s just another item for the product backlog. However, good backlog management encompasses creating a manageable product backlog with items that probably will get realized. Adding items to the backlog knowing nothing will happen with them only creates ‘waste’ and false expectations.
  • Acts as an entrepreneur. A great Product Owner basically is an entrepreneur for his product. He has a keen eye for opportunities, focuses on business value and the Return On Investment and acts proactive on possible risks and threats. Everything with the growth (size, quality, market share) of his product taken into account.
  • Uses the Backlog Prioritisation Quadrant. A great Product Owner is familiar with the Backlog Prioritisation Quadrant and uses this as an instrument to discuss the Product Backlog. The Backlog Prioritisation Quadrant clarifies the fact that the backlog consists of more than only new features. Technical innovation, technical debt and providing support should also be taken into account.
  • Takes Backlog Refinement seriously. A great Product Owner spends enough time at refining the Product Backlog. Backlog Refinement is the act of adding detail, estimates and order to items in the Product Backlog. The advise is to spend on average 10% of the capacity of the Development Team to refinement, the way it is done isn’t prescribed and is up to the team. The Product Owner can involve stakeholders and the Development Team with refining the backlog. The stakeholders because it gives them the opportunity to explain their wishes and desires. The Development Team because they can clarify functional and technical questions or implications. This will ensure common understanding and increases te quality of the Product Backlog considerably.
  • Has studied all the stuff from Roman Pichler. A great Product Owner has read all the articles of Roman Pichler and uses his templates continuously. Creating a product vision, roadmap, persona, canvas or sprint goal, the website of Roman Pichler is the place to be!

Do you know other characteristics or skills of a great Product Owner? Feel free to share them!

PS whenever I’ve used ‘his’, for sure you might replace this with ‘her’…

Barry is a freelance Scrum Master and Professional Scrum Trainer at He is an active member of the Scrum community and shares his insights and knowledge by speaking at conferences and writing articles. Since 2000 he fulfilled several roles within the software development environment, these vary from application consultant, project manager and team lead. Since 2010 his primary focus is applying the Agile mindset and Scrum Framework. Barry is specialized in the role of the Scrum Master and helping people understand the spirit of Scrum and hereby using the Scrum framework better. Due his own practical experience as a Scrum Master, Barry gained a lot of experience with starting new teams, coaching teams through the different stages of team development and applying different types of leadership. Sharing these experiences and hereby contributing to other persons growth is his true passion!

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  • Veeras Mani

    Great post Barry.

    I have few silly questions.

    1 Is there a product vision (supposedly created by PO with stakeholders) in Scrum? Is it mandatory?

    2 I thought customer and PO are same. Are you referring to users?

    3 Can you explain how a learning opportunity is used in ordering?

    4 What about the primary skillset around estimating the value of PBI? Also, could you tell what are common metrics used by PO for measuring product value?

    5 Is there any reason that you indicate that a PO must apply user story format for PBI? Scrum doesnt not mandate user story…?

    Why should the PO motivate the development team with their daily challenges? Isnt the team self-organizing and doesnt need a people leader?

    Roman Pichler also says that “a Product Owner can invite Stakeholders to Daily Scrum.” Isn’t that against scrum rules?

  • Alex Ballarin

    Hi Barry,

    great post (again).

    The last bullet made me thing about another expert like Jeff Patton. His User Story Mapping book is just faboulous.

  • Rob Williams

    Barry, fantastic list! 16/18 for me, so I picked up a couple things- thank you for sharing. I’d add on one more. | “Knows the Numbers” | I find it comes in useful to be comfortable with the financials and take a daily quick glimpse of the top level KPIs, revenue, performance, projections, and forecasts so we can spot potential changes and react quicker. It is somewhat related to your domain knowledge though. Round it up to 20 with “Has passion for an interest outside of work” to keep the creative thinking sharp.