30 Days of Product Management Genius with Alex Mitchell | The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Product Owners

“What’s your long-term career goal?” the CEO asked.

“I don’t have a long-term goal, yet.” I was answering a question in the final interview for a Product position. “But I have one for the short-term: become a Product Manager.”

“Okay. We’ll see,” he replied, ending the interview. Three days later, I landed the job. I was going to facilitate a product powered by cutting-edge technology that I barely knew. Besides being in over my head with the technology, I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do as a Product Manager!

I didn’t know how to achieve my goal: I didn’t just want to survive as a Product Manager, I wanted to thrive! I was nervous, but my desire to learn helped me focus on my next steps. I hired a researcher to provide me with all the information and online tutorials I needed to learn about Product Management, and I acquired a list of thought leaders in this domain.

A week later, I was like a piranha swimming in the ocean of knowledge. Tapping into all the genius of those who came before me, soaking up all of their combined wisdom, I quickly learned as much as I could and applied this to my new job. Senior Management was amazed by my acumen and Product Management skills.

Alex Mitchell is a Product Management genius who contributed to my PM success.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Product Owners

In a 280 Group Product Management Team Survey, 70% of companies doing Agile development indicated that the Product Manager is also the Product Owner.

A Product Owner is a well-defined role in the Scrum framework (a type of Agile approach), and is responsible for the success of the product by maximizing the output of the development team.

A Product Owner must:

  • Create and maintain (prioritizes and sequences) the product backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Participate in the daily Scrums, Sprint Planning Meetings and Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives to optimize the value of the work the development team performs;
  • Communicate development status externally by ensuring that the product backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all;
  • Represent the customer, interface and engage with the customer.

The day I inherited the product backlog I saw 200+ items — bugs, enhancements and proposed features. I didn’t know the context. I wasn’t familiar with the technology. The backlog tickets were written in multiple formats and in two different languages. Some were written by testers. Some by developers. Some by project managers. Some had no documented authors. It was a mess.

Everyone wanted a piece of the product, or possibly the glory or credit. Somehow this thing could provide a ticket to their own success. Adam Smith once said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

I looked over the backlog and asked to review the items with the rest of the team, to ensure the list contained the appropriate items, that they were prioritized, and that the items at the top of the backlog were ready for delivery.

I was still learning the technology, and I needed to work with the Development Team, the Test Team, the Project Team, the DevOps Team, and a number of external parties. Fortunately, I can speak three different languages, and I needed to in order to communicate with all of these stakeholders from multiple countries. So, according to Mitchell’s The 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Product Owner, the first important habit to form is:

Be an Extreme Generalist

Product owners must possess myriad skills in a multitude of arenas, but are often only specialists in a few. They must recognize quality designs vs. poor ones, understand their customers’ wants and needs, know how to market and promote their products, understand what analytics they need and how to interpret them, and they must understand technical trade-offs and the basic differences between programming languages.

Many of these general skills may lie dormant for months at a time; but a product manager must keep these tools handy in a shifting business landscape, and because of unanticipated strategic opportunities.

In neuroscience, a keystone habit is one that triggers a chain of other relevant positive habits. Mitchell’s second habit is:

Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize.

A highly effective product owner must allow their mental priority list to float and shift. A product owner is running a business, not just a product, and that business requires constant adjustment.

This doesn’t mean communicating every change to the team or to leadership. But it does require that the product owner is always thinking of new opportunities, and weighing those against the priorities of the past, even if that was only yesterday.

Mitchell’s third habit is:

Say No

The highly effective product owner says no 10 times as often as he says yes. “No” can sound like, “Sure, we’ll consider that for version 3,” or “Let’s ask customers about that idea first.” These are good ways for a product owner to preserve team morale or relationships with other teams, without saying yes.

Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” This mentality gives birth to Mitchell’s fourth habit:

Passion for the Product

A highly effective product owner has a palpable passion for their product. He says:

  • If you aren’t thinking about your product when you wake up in the middle of the night, you aren’t a highly effective product owner.
  • If you aren’t considering future opportunities and strategies for your product on the weekend, you aren’t a highly effective product owner.
  • If you don’t worry about the pain points your customers experience with your product, you aren’t a highly effective product owner.
  • If you don’t get excited about new companies and technologies in your industry, you aren’t a highly effective product owner.

This does not mean a product owner must have a destructive work-life balance. But she must possess a passion for her product, her customers, and the problems she is solving.

The product owner doesn’t let this passion cloud their judgement, or put at risk what is right for the business or their customers.

Switching context — jumping between different, unrelated tasks — can be a productivity killer. But switching context at the right time and place can increase effectiveness and efficiency. So Mitchell’s fifth habit is:

Balancing the Past, Present and Future

A highly effective product owner must learn when to shift their focus between the various priorities of their product and customers.

  • Past: What trends have brought the business to where it is today? What mistakes were made in the past and why? What were the big wins?
  • Present: What do customers love about the product today? What do they hate? Which trends continue today, and which do not?
  • Future: What’s the next big thing? What would our customers like us to build? How can we differentiate our product from the competition? What should we abandon, what should we keep?

Mitchell’s sixth habit is likely to develop after the previous five. He says a product owner must:

Be a Constant Evangelist

A highly effective product owner is always selling his product to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. He isn’t afraid of negative feedback, because this gives him ideas and reasons to improve his product.

A product owner must seek out people who can provide actionable feedback, whether he is at a conference, at a meetup event, or on the street.

He should not simply attend events, but should seek opportunities to present. It’s easier to spread the word about your product when you’re speaking to hundreds of people instead of merely one on one, though the product owner will see value in each of these interactions.

Mitchell’s seventh habit is to:

Be a Constant Learner

If a highly effective product owner sees a weakness in her skillset, she fills it.

  • Don’t know the difference between Javascript and Java?
  • Aren’t familiar with SQL or database queries?
  • Not sure how to do multivariate testing?

The highly effective product owner doesn’t know everything, but she attacks her shortcomings at the right time to deliver the right decisions for the right product.

Are you a Product Manager? Are you hungry for more practical and actionable PM knowledge you can apply on your job?

Alex Mitchell is a speaker in the Product Manager Summit: The first FREE Web Conference showcasing Product Management best practices from around the world.

He’ll discuss the Product Marketing Fundamental and share behind-the-scenes tips on how he works with Product Managers as a Director of Product.

You don’t want to miss this. Claim your free ticket.