How to Be a Product Owner When You Don’t Know the Product

At OutSystems, I found myself plunged into a sophisticated technological landscape. It’s a fast-paced, award-winning company with an industry-leading product, and there is a lot to learn and catch up on.

As a senior product owner, two questions arose: how can I make informed decisions if I am just getting started? ​How can I be accountable for those decisions?

The first weeks were exhilarating. I was busy discovering every corner in this new and fascinating ecosystem. There were new colleagues, a new culture, and the biggest challenge of all, a new and complex product. The onboarding process was cruising along at an (almost) comfortable pace, and then reality started to seep in slowly. I could no longer avoid the cold, hard fact that we were approaching the time when I would be expected to make decisions for the product area for which I was now responsible. To do that, I had to understand the pressure points, and it was time to deal with the discomfort of not being in control.

Looking back over the years, ever since becoming a product owner, there’s never been a dull moment, to put it mildly. There are always times when the product is still somewhat unknown to me, where I deal with new peers, new dynamics, new jargon.

Even though I love it, sometimes it’s quite a challenge, and now, based on my experience with dealing with this process several times, I want to share what I have learned.

Seven Behaviors For Making the Right Decisions

What are the common behaviors that lead me to be confident that my teams are delivering the right things? Let’s take a look.

1. Get to Know Your Teams

Invest your time into getting to know the people on your teams, learn who they are, their individualities, and their strengths. Be empathetic; empathy is essential to building sustainable and robust relationships. You work shoulder-to-shoulder with these people; you share the same goals. Empathy generates trust and enables genuine and honest interactions.

We are not all the same, and that’s great!

Usually, the members of your teams are more experienced and knowledgeable about the product than the product owner. Find ways to capture that expertise and use their knowledge. Ask them to share backstories of their experiences developing the product, but also use your experience to offer daily coaching so that they keep learning.

Challenge your teams to ask why. Everyday. You will reap the rewards down the road. In fact, asking why is the most important big rule at OutSystems, as explained in our Small Book of the Few Big Rules, “More than being entitled to know — it is your duty to ask!”

Actively listen, and without controlling the agenda, ask thought-provoking questions. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn.

Diversity makes the team grow stronger.

2. Delegate to Speed Things Up

Delegating tasks that are more typically the responsibility of the product owner brings a lot of advantages. The members of your team retain the business context faster. They show end users the things they are building, shortening feedback loops and promoting the best solutions right from the start. There are some drawbacks, of course. They are not always focused on the solution, but in those times when the roadmap is still unveiling itself, I see it as the best way to speed things up while staying on the right track.

Even though you, as the product owner, are ultimately responsible for the decisions and consequences, consider encouraging your teams to play a part in the decision-making process.

This doesn’t mean that they will be doing your job. For example, the interviews with internal stakeholders. You could start by guiding the first interviews together with your team members, and underline the outcome that is to be achieved. Set up the tasks, people involved, and requirements for every step so they know their work is meaningful. Then, leave them to it and trust they will do a great job.

3. Be Humble and Accept Your Own Limitations

Let’s face it; it’s not easy to juggle autonomy with having to depend on others to make a decision.

Accept this fact and set your ego aside. Adapt and be humble. Encourage others so they can move forward with your support, and let them take center stage.

Trust them. You don’t know everything, and that’s OK.

4. Promote Continuous Feedback Loops

There is no such thing as bad feedback. All feedback is helpful because it either validates what we are doing, thereby giving us the confidence to stay on track, or it shows us that we need to reassess.

Ideally, feedback comes from end users, the people for whom we are building the solution. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible, so it’s essential that you encourage continuous feedback loops from a wide and diverse group of stakeholders such as the strategic product management team, other development teams, and business stakeholders to be sure that you are fulfilling their needs and requirements.

When the context is low, it’s even more important to fight any unconscious bias and to pay attention, keeping the democracy strong by listening to those who usually are silenced by more vocal and commanding people.

5. Keep The Focus: Problem-Framing

Another product owner responsibility is framing the fundamental problems in the vision that’s being followed.

Although I have some technical knowledge, I try my best to distance myself from the conversations about solutions. Instead, I invest my time promoting different approaches for capturing, dismantling, and framing the fundamental problems, using clear and unambiguous language, so they are acknowledged and agreed upon by everyone.

An advantage of having less knowledge about the product is that I get to ask questions like a five-year-old, forcing simplification, and producing a plain and simple description of the problem.

Taking this time to be acquainted with the problem will reduce back and forth along the way.

6. Be Data-Driven, Then Trust Your Experience

A data-driven approach is great when meaningful and representative sampling is feasible. In an ideal world, we would have many data points to guide us in decision-making. In the absence of ideal-world data, foster and nurture trusted connections with experts in the different areas of the product to capture subjective and qualified analysis. Exercise your ability to triangulate their recommendations and analysis, looking for patterns and measuring their relevance.

Over time, trust your intuition and make micro-decisions to force people to counter-argue. And work from there, moving a step forward.

7. Use Clear Direction to Stay on Track

When we rely on many diverse sources of information, it’s hard to accommodate and streamline communication in a language that’s understood by everyone.

No matter the audience’s knowledge area, the level of seniority, or the context they may have, ensure that you promote clarity so that everyone is on the same page and understands the reasons of each decision — even if they are only choosing A and excluding B and C.

Share the context with them without falling into the trap of providing too much redundant information that might end up being a distraction. Distractions can quickly get your teams off track. Opt for visual language and simple text, steer away from the jargon your teams might use, and guide them to do the same. Use words that are understood by everyone (here I sometimes use myself as a normalization factor).

If you focus on clear communication and adopt the behaviors I’ve described here, not only will you and your team move forward, but you will also be on the right path.

The product owner brings focus and reminds the team why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Never lose sight of the end goal. When the work is diverting from the end goal, redirect, be ruthless and remind everyone where they should be headed, what the ultimate problem is and get everyone back on track.

And Finally, Deliver The Best Solutions

Building the right product can be a long and fascinating journey, but when entering unfamiliar territory, suddenly faced with complex products and problems, it can easily turn into a nightmare.

As you are gradually learning more about your product area and becoming more autonomous with decision making, relax and remember these behaviors so you can keep being accountable for the decisions you are making.

And of course, never ever, lose sight of the fundamental goal we all want to achieve which is to ensure our teams deliver the best solution to our end users on time.