11 Habits of Highly Effective Giant Swarm Product Owners

Jun 11, 2020

With years of experience working with diverse teams, we've curated a list of habits that we encourage our Product Owners to develop. Our hope is that the suggestions below may help to prevent common (and avoidable) mistakes. 

1. Make your team(s) your #1 priority 

Product Owners are always available to their team(s). Your team meetings take precedence over everything else. For you to be effective as a Product Owner, and for your team to be effective a whole, you need to be present at all the team ceremonies. Regular and continuous involvement in the team’s work helps to ensure that the product team is always working towards delivering business value.

Your team is your greatest asset in delivering quality products that produce positive outcomes for your customers. Partner with the team through every stage of the process. Illustrate your willingness to change processes and dedicate time to them to strengthen the environment of trust. Celebrate and share your team's achievements and recognize when teammates are doing something right.

2. Know your product vision

The Product Owner ensures the work of defining their product’s vision is achieved. They rally the team and align their work around this vision.

The Product Owner helps the team show up to work every day with a common vision. Remind your team of the big picture and connect their work to the business needs.

3. Put first things first

The Product Owner prioritizes often and frequently through conversations with stakeholders and team members. You should come into each planning event ready with a set of priorities to discuss with the team.

Waiting until the planning session to prioritize your stories is too late. Set aside a small timeslot each day and this will help you keep the priorities in line with the team objectives.

Product Owners are always thinking about new opportunities and weighing those against the priorities of the past, even if that past was just yesterday.

4. Own your roadmap

The Product Owners provide direction for the team’s work. They lead the collaboration with their team in order to build a roadmap according to the team’s mission. They communicate the roadmap and the team’s progress on it to internal and external stakeholders.

Help your team to set reasonable sprint goals by limiting work in progress. At the same time, make sure the team has capacity to work on refactoring and optimization while working on the team’s main product objectives.

The Product Owner questions with courage and grace when people diverge from the team priorities in their daily work. This is not micromanagement.

5. Organize your team's work

The Product Owner creates an environment to allow the work to be performed through self-organizing teams. This includes clearly expressed backlog items and ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, prioritized, and clear to all.

The Product Owner helps improve processes to enable the team to work; but does not try to force the team through a process. People over processes. But processes are important too, sometimes.

The Product Owner creates an environment where the team feels comfortable to vocalize and eliminate obstacles. And where necessary, they eliminate the obstacle themselves.


6. Know how to say ‘no’

The Product Owner creates an environment where the right decisions get made in a timely manner.

Bring the most impactful problem to the table. Drive alignment through the structure (for example, by articulating a decision framework). Identify the people most relevant to the decision and invite them to help us decide.

Have the courage to say that the decision should be 'no'. Make important tradeoffs, even if it makes some people unhappy. Do not let important decisions linger for fear of making a choice.

7. Be a good communicator

Communication is the Product Owner’s most crucial skill. Strive to effectively communicate between teams, stakeholders, and users, to create alignment and understanding between the different roles and perspectives.

Pursue clarity over comfort. Get ahead of potential miscommunications and misalignments. Dare to ask the 'stupid questions' no matter how inconsequential they seem in the moment.

Ensure people have the information they need to do their job. To do this, be responsive and give timely responses to questions. Facilitate open communication and recognize your role as a connector between teams and roles. Strive to remove yourself as a communication bottleneck. For example, by creating documentation, FAQs, organized boards, and so on.

Recognize that having a productive meeting is work. Plan for meetings, use them wisely, and avoid being the president of the Meeting-Haters Club.

8. Represent the needs of stakeholders

The Product Owner represents the stakeholder, who is not in the room. When talking to a business stakeholder, represent the team and the customers. When talking to the team, represent the customers and the business. When talking to a customer, represent the team and the business.

The Product Owner is not an 'order taker'. Understand the problem behind a request and build a solution with the team to solve that problem.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford

The Product Owner empathizes with each stakeholder’s situation and needs. Ask questions and clarify statements to truly understand a stakeholder. Don't make assumptions or project your beliefs onto your stakeholders.

9. Build a shared understanding around work

Ensure that there’s a clearly defined scope of work that needs to be done to accomplish set goals and everyone is aligned on what 'done' actually means.

Be responsible for the scope. Clarify the value for all of the proposed changes. When necessary, raise concerns to avoid work that doesn’t bring your team closer to achieving their goals.

10. Be knowledgeable about your product but also be willing to learn

The Product Owner must be knowledgeable about the subject matter involved in the product being developed. If you (the Product Owner) are not a Subject Matter Expert, reach out to other resources to get the necessary information on time.

The Product Owner participates in all stages of product development and therefore, should be willing to learn new technologies and techniques.

Product Owners aim to become habitual users of their product, within reasonable limits.

11. Own your leadership role

The Product Owner is proactive. Take ownership and responsibility for situations. Seek ways to contribute to the success of your product and team. Push for clarity and resources where a lack of it is creating problems for the team. This includes 'senior leadership', customers, sales and marketing, partners, and so on.

The Product Owner aligns, motivates, and influences the team and other stakeholders in ways that don't require organizational authority. Ensure that every voice on the team is heard. Listen especially hard for the quiet voices.

The Product Owner 'protects' the team by saying ‘no’ to unreasonable demands, including feature requests and PMs. And finds ways to share each others’ burdens as a team.

Finally, evangelize your product, both within, and outside of the team.

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