What you should do when starting a new journey as a Product Owner

A man in a forest puzzled by which path to take
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What should you expect once you start a new job as a Product Owner? Challenges and surprises.

No matter how experienced you are, starting in a new place with the Product Owner hat is demanding. You have to learn a lot in a short time to lead the team in a successful direction. How you start your new journey is critical to your success.

I have started a new journey as a Product Owner several times. But not all of these beginnings were successful; poor onboardings led me to significant failures. The first months as a Product Owner are tough for everyone because most companies don’t have a clear way of onboarding newcomers. Yet, they expect you to deliver value as fast as possible.

What I have learned during my journey is simple:

If you want to be successful, you should take the driving seat. Don’t wait for someone to onboard you, create your strategy and go for it.

Let me share with you which steps I take whenever I start a new challenge as a Product Owner. Hopefully, you can benefit from it.

1. Understand the Product Vision

The first thing to do once you start as a Product Owner is to understand the Product Vision. By understanding, I mean gaining clarity on:

  • What kind of problem the product or service solves.
  • Why solving this problem makes a difference in the life of the identified customers.
  • Who the customers are.
  • How the product or service differentiates from the available alternatives.

A solid Product Vision will allow you to focus on initiatives to reach the vision. Without a meaningful Product Vision, prioritization becomes an endless challenge. Sadly, you might land on a team without a Product Vision, but don’t panic. You could instead take as an opportunity and craft the Product Vision with the company leadership.

“If you don’t invest in the future and don’t plan for the future, there won’t be one.” — George Buckley

2. Get to Know the Roadmap

Once you are familiar with the Product Vision, it’s time to get to know the roadmap. Most companies have a particular way of crafting roadmaps, which gives you signs of how agile they are. You should strive to understand the following:

  • Roadmap items: the content can be features to implement or goals to pursue. The first one shows low agility as the team has no room to explore different solutions.
  • Time: the length of roadmaps varies mainly from quarterly, semesterly, or yearly. From my experience, the longer it is, the less agile the company is.
  • Responsibilities: roadmaps can be defined in different levels, e.g., teams, products, goals, etc. An agile roadmap should foster collaboration instead of creating silos.

As a new Product Owner, you should focus on understanding how to play the game. After some point in time, you should challenge whatever slows the team down from delivering value.

“Roadmaps are evidence of strategy. Not a list of features.” — Steve Johnson

3. Successful Metrics

Being a Product Owner means a lot of responsibility. You are accountable for the product's success. Therefore, you should precisely understand how to measure the outcome. Don’t let common KPIs fool you. Many metrics are arbitrary. For example, measuring the revenue alone is pointless.

Each product will have different metrics to follow, and it’s your responsibility to ensure you know the ones for your product. Let’s take online shopping as an example. Some relevant metrics would be:

  • Conversion Rate
  • Customer Acquisition Cost
  • Customer Lifetime Value
  • Growth Rate
  • Return Rate
  • Cancellation Rate
  • Net Promoter Score
  • Daily/Weekly/Monthly Active Users
Only when you can evaluate the whole picture, you can understand how sustainable your product is.
A man looking at some graphs
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4. Business Model Canvas

It’s vital for you as a Product Owner to know the business model behind your product. Otherwise, you can easily fall into the feature factory anti-pattern. I don’t want to demotivate you, but the reality is sad. Most companies don’t have a transparent business model. Often, the ultimate goal is to make more profits. It’s up to you to bend to the status quo or challenge it.

In my opinion, having a business model is non-negotiable because the impact of not having it is too high. When we focus solely on the execution, we may produce features that will hurt the product instead of generating value.

“Great products are engineered when product managers truly understand the desired outcomes by actively listening to people, not users.”
Michael Fountain, Director of Product at Apptentive

5. Value Proposition Canvas

In combination with the business model, it’s equally important to have a clear picture of the users. Until you can empathize with the users and understand their problems, you cannot provide solutions for them.

Once again, my suggestion is simple, if a value proposition is unavailable, it’s your responsibility to make it available. Of course, you can decide to work without it, but if you choose this path, don’t be surprised when users tell you that the solution is worthless for them.

“At the heart of every product person, there’s a desire to make someone’s life easier or simpler. If we listen to the customer and give them what they need, they’ll reciprocate with love and loyalty to your brand.”
— Francis Brown, Product Development Manager at Alaska Airlines

6. Talk to Users

Any product or service has a simple reason to exist, to make the lives of a group of people better. Once you understand the business model behind your product, it’s time to get honest feedback, and the best people to talk to are the real end-users.

Whenever I start a new adventure, I love talking to customers. It’s always surprising how much I can learn during these conversations. I believe that talking to one customer is better than no customer, but a good number would be from six to eight. The goal is to discover whether end-users benefit from the product or not. Also, you should learn about their pains while using the product and opportunities to help them benefit more from it.

Still, you should avoid proxies, don’t talk to someone who represents the end-user; this will limit your insights. That’s why you should not confuse stakeholders with real end-users. Only those who use the product can tell you how the product is helpful for them, other than that is just an opinion.

“A great product manager has the brain of an engineer, the heart of a designer, and the speech of a diplomat.”
— Deep Nishar, Vice President of Product at LinkedIn

7. Talk to Customer Service

When you talk to the users, you will get relevant insights, but that is only the start. You should understand deeply their pains. The best people to share stories with you are the customer service team. They mainly talk to the customers to solve their problems; no customer will contact customer service to say how happy they are with the product.

Although I mentioned avoiding talking to proxies, I perceive the customer service team as a rich source of insights. I’ve learned a lot from them, mainly what leads customers to frustration.

Establishing an alliance with customer service will help you increase your customer satisfaction.

“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” — Bill Gates
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8. Talk to the Scrum Teams

Obviously, you have to talk to the Scrum Teams, but what you speak to them is what matters. Developers know better the product than anyone else; you should understand with them which are the challenges with the product, technical debts, bugs, and so on.

Developers are your best partners in building successful products, don’t treat them as a means to an end. Collaborate intensively to solve relevant problems.

Strong relationships with developers lead to greatness, while poor relationships lead to frustrations.

9. Clean the Product Backlog

Now that you have a clear picture of the product you are working on, it’s time to clean the Product Backlog. I recommend you to be bold, don’t be afraid of killing dinosaurs. Remove the old to create space for the new.

My approach is simple; I filter all items not updated during the last three months and remove them. I was criticized many times because I didn’t invest any time in understanding the old items. Well, I’ve done that already, and it’s worthless; it generates only distractions from what really matters.

We cannot be agile if we have a waterfall mindset.

Starting Right Is Key to Succeed

The first months as a Product Owner are critical for your journey. You will often land on a dysfunctional team, and it’s your responsibility to help the team escape from the traps they face.

Strong Product Owners don’t complain about anti-patterns; they challenge the status quo and do whatever it takes to deliver real value.

  • Be bold.
  • Break the rules whenever needed.
  • Don’t let obstacles hold you.
“When the wind blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.” — Chinese proverb

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Nine Steps to Successfully Start Your New Product Owner Job was originally published in Serious Scrum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.