TL; DR: 42+5 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions That Will Benefit Your Organization
This second publication in the Hands-on Agile Fieldnotes series provides 42+5 questions and answers for the Scrum Product Owner interview.
Co-authored with Andreea Tomoiaga, 42+5 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Imposters represents the most important learnings of our more than 20 years combined hands-on experience with Kanban, Scrum, XP, and several product discovery frameworks. We have worked as Scrum Product Owners, Scrum Masters, agile coaches, and developers in agile teams and organizations of all sizes and levels of maturity.
We have each participated in interviewing dozens of Scrum Product Owner candidates on behalf of our clients or employers. The questions and answers herein are what we have learned.
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Update 2020-06-20: The Product Owner Interview Enhanced by Remote Scrum with Distributed Teams
How can we learn during the Product Owner interview whether a candidate has experience with facilitating remote agile events?
To figure out the candidate’s level of competence, I like to run a Liberating Structures-based exercise during the interview. I use TRIZ to task the Product Owner candidate to come up with suggestions on how to sabotage a remote Scrum approach effectively, when talking to teammates, internal stakeholders or customers. (Who is considering running user tests in person at the moment?)
These are some of the remote agile anti-patterns, the candidate should be able to identify:
- Remote Agile is just standard work-life plus Zoom: Pretending that working remotely is the same as usual except for the video cameras. (This approach ignores all the challenges that distributed team face, for example, not investing enough in getting to know each other better to build trust. We are Social animals and need to meet In person sooner or later to build lasting trust among teammates, thus creating psychological safety. Moreover, there are difficulties in reading the virtual room in general, which means that taking decisions to the team or calling out introverts manifest themselves differently in a remote working setup. Trust is the beginning of all; without it, transparency, inspection, and adaptation would be able to work their magic, and we end up as distributed feature factories.)
- Neither fish nor meat: Hybrid events create two classes of teammates — remote and co-located — where the co-located folks are calling the shots. (Beware of the distance bias—when out of sight means out of mind—thus avoiding the creation of a privileged subclass of teammates: “Distance biases have become all too common in today’s globalized world. They emerge in meetings when folks in the room fail to gather input from their remote colleagues, who may be dialing in on a conference line.” (Source.) To avoid this scenario, make sure that once a single participant joins remotely, all other participants “dial in,” too, to level the playing field.
- Surveillance: Trust won’t be built by surveilling and micro-managing team members. Therefore, don’t go rogue; the prime directive rules more than ever in a remote agile setup. Trust in people and do not spy on them — no matter how tempting it might be. (Read more about the damaging effect of a downward spiraling trust dynamic from Esther Derby.) https://www.estherderby.com/the-future-may-be-remote-must-it-include-surveillance/
- Mindless rituals: Leadership belief and or facilitation practices turn once useful routines into mindless rituals. (For example, think of Groundhog Day-style retrospectives over and over again. Answering the same three questions every single time is the easiest path to kill any form of creativity and collaboration. While this is hard to avoid in face-to-face environments, it requires much more dedication and energy in a remote agile setting.)
- Death by PowerPoint: Meetings still revolve around an individual broadcasting a slide deck. (While you might get away with this approach for some time in face-2-face environments, it will not fly with distributed teams. Sessions need to inclusive, interactive, and engaging to entice collaboration, think Liberating Structures, and Training from the Back of the Room.)
- Unstructured communication: “Didn’t you get the memo?” (There is no clear practice on how to communicate which kind of information to whom. Are we talking about email, Slack, the team wiki, a comment in Github, or the biweekly remote brow bag session? This lack of structure and agreement leads to stress—how can I avoid missing important news now that there is no longer a watercooler; do I have to monitor all Slack channels in real-time—and probably a feeling of being excluded. Maybe, this effect is just a missing update to the working agreement or team charter. But what if it is done deliberately? (Honi soit qui mal y pense.) in a remote agile environment always requires to overcommunicate and be completely transparent.)
For a comprehensive list of anti-patterns, read Remote Agile (Part 4): Anti-Patterns — Pitfalls Successful Distributed Teams Avoid.
The Product Owner According to the Scrum Guide
While the Scrum Guide is sometimes detailing issues to a lesser degree, the Product Owner role does receive appropriate attention:
The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.
The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog.
The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.
The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee in the Product Backlog, but those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority must address the Product Owner.
For the Product Owner to succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions. The Product Owner’s decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog. No one can force the Development Team to work from a different set of requirements.
Source: Scrum Guide 2017.
The Scrum Guide continues defining a Product Owners’s services to the Development Team, and the organization, which guided the creation of the following set the Scrum Master interview questions.
Scrum’s Product Owner Role Is Tricky to Grasp
Scrum is not a methodology, but a framework. There are no rules that apply to each and every scenario — just best practices that have worked in other organizations before. As somebody hiring for an agile team, you need to determine for yourself what works for your organization — which is a process, not a destination.
The role of the Scrum Product Owner itself makes the hiring process difficult to handle. The Scrum Product Owner is the least well-defined role within the Scrum framework and — at the same time — the role with the most facets.
Scrum Product Owners are innovators at heart and thus value creators for both their customers and their organizations — if given a chance to work in an agile manner. Theirs is the most vulnerable Scrum role. Turn a Scrum Product Owner into a (ticket-system of your choice) monkey, or deprive them of the ability to say “No” (by making someone else the gatekeeper of the product backlog), and they quickly become the Achilles’ heel of any agile organization.
The Scrum Product Owner role depends upon the size of the organization, the industry it operates in, and the lifecycle stage of its products. But most importantly, overlap with the product manager role must be considered (spoiler: they aren’t identical).
These 42+5 interview questions are neither suited nor intended to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an expert on agile software development. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, these questions will provide ample support when needing to determine who of the candidates have worked successfully in the agile trenches. Please keep in mind that “agile” is a mindset, not a methodology. No checklist will drive your recruiting success.
42+5 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Imposters provides contextual information including guidance on proper answers and instruction as to how these interview questions are best used. The questions are grouped into six sets covering the most critical work areas.
Download the PDF
The free 42+5 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Imposters PDF is not merely listing the questions, but also contains a lot of additional content:
- Background information on why the questions are useful in the interview process,
- A range of appropriate answers to each interview question.
In our experience, two to three questions from each set will provide more than enough ground for an engaging 60-minute product owner interview.
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Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 1: The Role of a Scrum Product Owner
This first set addresses a candidate’s conceptual understanding of the Product Owner’s role in the Scrum process:
- What’s the purpose of being agile in the first place?
- How would you characterize your role as a Product Owner? Are you a facilitator, a coach, a manager, a visionary, a tactician, a coordinator, or a driver? To what extent is the Product Owner a “product manager”?
- When was the last time you said “No” to a stakeholder? How did you approach the situation? What was your reason for saying “No”?
- Your product backlog is guarded by a ‘product committee’ who meet regularly to approve new features. Can you act as a credible Product Owner if you’re not in control of the product backlog?
- What titles would you think suitable for your business card when you think of your role as a Product Owner?
- How do you cooperate with the Scrum Team?
- Would it bother you if your Scrum Master suggests a course of action concerning product development?
Set 2: Product Discovery and External Stakeholders
The questions in this set concern what’s required of the product owner on product discovery and product management:
- Do you think Scrum adequately addresses the product discovery process?
- How do you learn about new ideas and requirements?
- How do you include user research in the product discovery process?
- How much time do you allocate to user research and understanding your customers’ needs?
- How would you design a process to handle product ideas from stakeholders — and the organization generally?
- At what stage do you involve the Scrum team in the product discovery process?
- How do you avoid misallocating resources to features or products that no one is really interested in?
Set 3: Internal Stakeholder Management
The questions in this set concern specific aspects of the relationships between product owners and their internal stakeholders:
- Your organization has recently decided to ‘go agile’ in product development. How do you educate your stakeholders about the implications?
- How do you organize a Scrum team’s collaboration with stakeholders — and improve it over time?
- How do you communicate with uncooperative stakeholders?
- A new feature is overdue and has been drastically underestimated because of unexpected technical debt. Nevertheless, your most important stakeholder insists on ‘finishing it’ because so much effort has already been invested. How do you deal with this?
- How do you deal with pet projects?
- The sales department often sells new features to close deals without talking to you first. How do you deal with that?
Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 4: Product Roadmap Planning
The questions in this set concern one of the most contentious topics in the profession: “How do we build agile product roadmaps that work?”
- Product vision and strategy are kept confidential in your organization to prevent competitors from stealing the ideas. Will that impede your work as a product owner?
- Aren’t product portfolio and roadmap planning anachronisms in an agile organization?
- What is your approach to creating product roadmaps?
- How often should product roadmap planning be done?
- How do you connect teams to the product vision — and show them how their contributions bring that vision to life?
- Who should participate in product roadmap planning?
Set 5: The Product Backlog and User Story Creation
The questions in this set concern a Product Owner’s home turf: the product backlog, and user story creation:
- What’s the idea behind product backlog refinement?
- How would you organize the process of refining the product backlog?
- How many user stories can you work on in parallel while ensuring their continued relevance to customers and the organization?
- At what stage do you include other team members in the refinement process?
- How do you handle bugs and technical debt when there are a lot of valuable new features competing for resources?
- What should a good user story look like? What is its structure?
- What are the most common pitfalls of product backlog refinement?
- When would you remove a product feature?
Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 6: Sprint Planning, Reviews, and Retrospectives
The questions in this final set concern the Scrum sprint itself—planning, delivery, and closure:
- How do you ensure the Scrum Team will be working on the most valuable user stories?
- Is it necessary for the Product Owner to set the goal for a sprint?
- You are pushing for an important user story to be selected for the next sprint. Unfortunately, the final designs are missing — but the designers promise to deliver no more than two days into the sprint. The Scrum Master, however, rejects the story because the ‘Definition of Ready’ has not been achieved. What can you do?
- Should the Product Owner attend the entire sprint planning ceremony?
- Your Scrum Team regularly estimate user stories at the upper end of the possible range. You believe they’re playing safe, creating buffers for rainy days. How do you address this?
- When do you accept user stories?
- Does a Product Owner have a veto over the release of user stories?
- During a sprint review, the development team demos new functionality you’ve never seen before. How do you react?
Conclusion: How to Use These 42+5 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions
Scrum has always been a pragmatic business, and to succeed in this business, a candidate needs to have a passion for getting their hands dirty. Although the ground rules are trivial, taking a group of individuals with different backgrounds, levels of engagement, and personal agendas to deliver value by creating a great product continuously is a complex task. And the larger the organization is — the more levels of management there are — the more likely failure, in one of its many forms, is lurking around the corner.
These interview questions are neither suited nor intended to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an expert on agile software development. But in the hands of a seasoned practitioner, these questions will provide ample support when needing to determine who of the candidates have worked successfully in the agile trenches. They’ll also help you decide who’s most likely to be an imposter.
You want to avoid inviting imposters for a trial. Look for the pragmatic veteran who has experienced both failure and success with previous projects, and who carries the scars to prove it. Certifications are by no means an indication that you’ve found the “right candidate.”