How to Successfully Launch Your Career as a Product Owner

Whether you’ve been told you’re now a product owner for a Scrum team, or you’ve just landed your dream job, getting started in this new role can be challenging. Since we’ve been around a lot of new product owners, we’re going to give you our top tips for succeeding as a product owner during your first 30 days.

Understand Your Stakeholders

As a product owner, you’re going to have a lot of stakeholders to manage and knowing where each of them are coming from is going to help you tremendously.

First, get a clear picture of who all of the stakeholders are for the product you’re working on. Look beyond job titles and authority and to people who really have a vested interest in the product. It may be someone from Sales, Marketing or other areas of the company that you haven’t traditionally thought about.

While traditional managers may have people on the team reporting to them, they aren’t truly the product’s stakeholders. They should be informed about the work in order to support team members, but true product feedback needs to come from people who have direct contact with customers.

Once you’ve sorted through the product’s stakeholders versus the leaders, get to know them one by one and take in their perspective on the product. Explain that your role as product owner is to listen and to hear feedback, but what the team works on and how work is prioritized is ultimately your decision as product owner. This may be tough for them to hear, but having that conversation upfront is critical to ensuring you have the authority to make decisions.

Roman Pichler has an interesting article on "Getting Stakeholder Engagement Right". We cover many of these concepts in our Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner workshop, but having exposure on how to get the engagement correct will help you understand your stakeholders as well as the level of engagement they might need.

Align on the Vision for the Product

You and the stakeholders need to align on the longer-term vision of the product. This vision shouldn’t change too often and will be your guiding light for what type of work your team takes on.

If the vision isn’t clear to everyone, get with all of the stakeholders for a collaborative visioning exercise. You can do fun things like write an elevator pitch for your product, describe the product's features if you could box it up or write a product review. Each of these things helps bring together everyone and ensures that you have a united vision.

Map Out Top Priorities

After you have alignment on your vision, take planning to the next level by looking at a Wildly Important Goal (WIG) for an upcoming quarter. Once again, collaboration is key, so do this with all of your stakeholders present. If someone can’t attend, that’s fine, but those who want to have input should understand this is their opportunity to get involved.

Next, you’ll want to get input for your product roadmap. We recommend holding a user story mapping session with your key stakeholders and the Scrum team. This session helps you walk through how users will use your product.

If for example, your product is a movie theater, your users will have to do things like select your theater, buy a ticket, purchase refreshments and select a seat. Those are the basic steps in sequential order. Next, there are options for each of those steps, such as ordering a ticket from your website, from an app or at the ticket window.

Once you understand the flow of your product from the customer’s perspective, you can begin mapping out the minimally viable pieces for your first delivery, and subsequent additions for another delivery.

The story mapping session can be used to help you create a product roadmap. This quarterly, high-level document can be used to communicate with stakeholders the order and high-level timeline for new features to be released. However, make sure to get estimates from your team to truly understand the effort of the work and how much the team can commit to before promising any time frames.

Know What the Team Needs from You

As the product owner, you’re considered a member of the team. If you’re new to the team, set up individual chats to get to know everyone. Ask them what they expect from you as their product owner. Taking the extra time to do this will strengthen your relationship with the team and you can clearly articulate how you plan to work together.

The team will probably have certain expectations when it comes to the level of detail you provide them on user stories. Make sure to have a conversation with the entire team together about this so you’re all on the same page.

It’s common for teams new to Scrum to ask for detailed requirements in user stories. Your role is really to provide the ‘what’ from the business side rather than the ‘how’ it will be implemented, so be sure to educate the team on how they get to be more empowered to decide the best way to build the product. Clear acceptance criteria on your user stories will help to set expectations.

You may have to give them a little more detail at first, but strive to empower the team to take more and more of the ‘how’ on themselves.

Maintain an Ordered Product Backlog

The best thing you can do for your Scrum team is to have an easy-to-follow well ordered backlog. Strive to be about two-to-three sprints ahead of the team with user stories and acceptance criteria. Some great product owners we’ve seen spend about 30 minutes every day just tidying up the backlog and making sure it’s up-to-date with the most recent information and prioritization.

Dive Right In!

The best thing you can do now is dive right in! Sure, you’ll make a few mistakes along the way, but you’ll learn from them too. Congratulations on your new role and taking the time to learn a little more about being a product owner.

Lance Dacy is a Certified Scrum Trainer who’s passionate about applying Scrum beyond technology to all areas of business and life. If you’d like to become a certified Scrum professional, check out the upcoming class schedule.