What makes a great Product Owner?

I often get asked “What makes a great product owner?”

My answer used to be that the PO needs to have both:

  • knowledge (e.g. a good understanding of the vision / needs) and
  • authority (i.e. being able to agree the team’s direction without it being overturned by someone else).

The Scrum Guide explains it in a bit more detail, saying that the PO is accountable for:

  • maximising the value of the product
  • optimising value of work being done
  • managing the product backlog (and making it visible)
  • ensuring the team understands the needs

However, I’ve seen many instances where the PO seems to have all the above, yet the team still has fundamental problems (such as an incomplete understanding of the work and outputs that don’t have sufficient value).

The crucial element that is missing in such instances is … time.

To have the required authority, it often means that the product owner is a senior member of the organisation. But senior members of organisations rarely have much time: if they aren’t in meetings, they are often doing their day job in their specific domain. For example, one of the best product owners I’ve worked with was in charge of buying for a global fashion company. He knew everyone on his 10+ buying teams personally and invested time in understanding what they were doing and what they needed to do their job. He was also on the board of directors. This meant that, as a team providing software for the buying teams, we had a product owner that had the knowledge and authority we needed. But getting time with him was a struggle. Sometimes we got the time we needed if we pushed hard, but normally something came up that meant we didn’t. We got by, but it was far from optimal.

This isn’t a criticism of product owners; it’s just how it is. This has made me wonder if there’s a Law of Product Owners which means you can have up to two of the required elements, but never all three?

The Law of Product Owners (“LoPO”) states that you can never have all three of the elements that make up a great product owner.


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