What Are the Critical Skills of a Product Owner?

I recently participated in an online discussion on the question of “What are the Critical Skills of a Product Owner?” I think this is a very good question because the role of a Product Owner is not very well understood and the actual role that a Product Owner might play can vary significantly in the real-world depending on the nature of the company’s business and the scope and complexity of the projects that the Product Owner is responsible for.

What are the Critical Skills of the Product Owner?
Business chart.

What Does the Scrum Guide Say?

The role of the Product Owner is relatively well-defined in the Scrum Guide; however the Scrum Guide recognizes that how it is done might vary widely across organizations. Here’s what the Scrum Guide has to say:

“The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

“The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:

  • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
  • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

“The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.”

Impact of the Company’s Business

The nature of the company’s business will have a very big impact on the role of the Product Owner. In this regard, there are two major types of companies that are most significant:

  • Product-oriented Companies
  • Project-oriented Companies

Product-oriented Companies

At one extreme are product-oriented companies that are in the business of selling products to external customers. In those companies, a Product Owner might have the full responsibilities of a Product Manager including profit-and-loss responsibility for the product being developed. 

In this world, the critical skills of a Product Owner are essentially the same as the skills of a good Product Manager

Project-oriented Companies

At another extreme, are companies that are not really in the product development business at all and the work is more project-oriented to develop projects for internal use inside the company. In that kind of environment, the role of a Product Owner is likely to be very different. What is typical in this role is the role of the Product Owner is somewhat of a combination of a “Business Analyst on steroids” and a “Project Manager on steroids”.

  • He/she has some attributes of a Business Analyst in representing the requirements of the business for the solution being developed but it is much more than an ordinary Business Analyst in that a Product Owner has decision-making responsibility on the requirements where a normal Business Analyst does not have that kind of decision-making authority. 
  • He/she also has some attributes of a Project Manager since he/she is responsible for the successful completion of the project but that responsibility is also much more than a normal Project Manager in that a Project Manager is normally only responsible for delivering defined requirements and doe not typically have responsibility for the overall business success of the project. 

In this world, the critical skills of a Product Owner are:

  • Some “Business Analyst” skills for succinctly and accurately defining requirements but also have the domain knowledge and business knowledge to be a decision-maker to determine and prioritize what those requirements should be
  • Some “Project Management” skills to make good risk-based decisions on managing the project to make it successful from an overall business perspective (not simply meeting defined requirements)

Impact of the Scope and Complexity of the Project

Beyond the nature of the company’s business discussed above, the role of the Product Owner can also vary widely due to the scope and complexity of the project.

  • At one extreme, you might have a small, single-team Agile project with a very limited scope and complexity
  • At another extreme, you might have a much larger and more complex enterprise-level project with multiple teams

Naturally, that will also have a very big impact on the role of the Product Owner.

What Does a Product Owner Really Do?

So, what does a Product Owner really do? Here’s a very good article on that subject:

The Top 10 Responsibilities of a Product Owner