TL; DR: 71 Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Imposters
If you are looking to fill a position for a Product Owner in your organization, you may find the following 71 interview questions useful to identify the right candidate. They are derived from my fourteen years of practical experience with XP and Scrum, serving both as Product Owner and Scrum Master and interviewing dozens of Product Owner candidates on behalf of my clients.
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Update 2020-11-30: Comprehensive Content Refactoring and a New Document Stack
I refactored the ebook completely, eliminating a lot of content debt while aligning the content with the new Scrum Guide 2020. Moreover, I migrated the document to a new format that will allow for much speedier updates in the future. You will also now find all questions and answers listed below, starting with the first two areas of competence.
Download the 71 Product Owner Interview Questions Ebook
The free 71 Product Owner Interview Questions PDF is not merely listing the questions, but also contains background information on:
- Why the questions are useful in the process, and…
- A range of appropriate answers.
Two to three questions from each category will provide more than enough ground for an engaging initial 60 minute-long conversation with candidates.
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71 Product Owner Interview Questions
Scrum is not a methodology but a framework. There are no rules that apply to each scenario, just good practices that have worked in other organizations before. Hence, you have to figure out on your own what is working for your organization. Finding this answer is a process and not a destination.
The role of the Product Owner itself is making the hiring process difficult to handle. The Product Owner is the least well-defined accountability within the Scrum framework and—at the same time—the one Scrum role with the most facets. (Please note that I will continue using ‘role’ on occasions throughout this document, although the Scrum Guide 2020 now speaks of ‘accountabilities.’)
A Product Owner is an innovator at heart and thus a value creator for customers and organizations if given a chance to work in an agile manner. The Product Owner is also the most vulnerable Scrum role. Turn them into a [fill-in a ticket-system of your choice] monkey or deprive them of the ability to say ‘no’—as in being the guardian of the Product Backlog—, and the Product Owner quickly becomes the Achilles heel of any agile organization.
The Product Owner role depends on the size of an organization, the industry it is operating in, its culture, and the lifecycle stage of that organization’s product(s). Lastly, there is an overlap with the product manager role. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t identical.)
The following interview questions are neither suited nor intended to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an agile software development expert. But in a seasoned practitioner’s hands, they support figuring out who of the candidates has been successfully working the agile trenches in the past. Remember, “Agile” is a mindset, not a methodology. Hence, no checklist can drive your recruiting success to the desired outcome.
The Product Owner interview questions in this PDF are modeled after a holistic model of agile product development for software products:
In this model, product discovery is moved as far as possible to the left to keep costs of validating hypotheses—derived from a vision and strategy—low and increase the speed of experimentation. In this approach, the Product Owner needs to coach the Scrum Team on how to adopt such a holistic model, teaming up with the Scrum Master in the process.
Therefore, the PDF contains additional background and contextual information, how the following set of questions can be interpreted as well as guidance on desired or acceptable ranges of answers for each question. The questions themselves are grouped into six categories.
Product Owner Interview Questions: The Organization of Questions and Answers
The ebook provides both questions as well as guidance on the range of suitable answers. These should allow an interviewer to deep dive into candidates’ understanding of Scrum and their agile mindset. However, please note that:
- The answers reflect the personal experience of the author and may not be valid for every organization: what works for organization A is probably failing in organization B,
- There are not suitable multiple choice questions to identify a candidate’s agile mindset given the complexity of applying “agile” to any organization,
- The author has a holistic view of agile practices: agile equals product discovery (what to build) plus product delivery (how to build it).
Please find the following 71 Product Owner interview questions to identify suitable candidates for the role of Scrum Master or agile coach:
Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 1: The Role of a Scrum Product Owner
This category addresses the meta-level of the Product Owner role and the Scrum process. Please keep the following in mind when asking the questions:
- What is the purpose of being agile in the first place?
As the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” states, it is mainly about adaptability over following a plan. Or, to put it with Peter Drucker, it is about doing the right things, and less about doing the things right. Concerning product development, being agile is about postponing deciding to invest in the latest economically feasible moment. This is achieved by testing hypotheses as fast and as inexpensive as possible, thus mitigating risk and maximizing the development team’s work. It also means to have the courage to stop an effort in case the chosen course is no longer viable.
- How would you characterize your role as Product Owner? Are you a facilitator, a coach, a manager, a visionary, a tactician, a coordinator, or a “driver?”
This is an open-ended question better to understand the candidates’ perception of their role. A Product Owner is a leadership role, yielding no authority in a traditional management sense. In that way, the Product Owner is featured a bit by all the labels mentioned in the question. The Product Owner role has also been dubbed as “bottleneck” or the “Achilles heel of the Scrum process”; any mentioning of that would undoubtedly be a plus. If a candidate is mostly referring to something like “I am the one creating the user stories,” I would dig into that.
- How would you characterize our role as Product Owner, particularly concerning the product manager role? Or are both roles just different labels for “product people” and are basically identical?
Full-stack “product people”—covering the product manager & Product Owner role in one person—are rare. Often, it takes too much time to cover all responsibilities: from communication to stakeholders and customers to organize the operational work within the Scrum process. Depending on the product, Product Owners hence can quickly spread themselves too thin to become a meaningful player in the process. (Speaking of which: a Product Owner is not a requirements engineer, not a business analyst, and not a user stories expert either.) As a result, you may observe that large organizations split the responsibilities among two or more individuals. Here, the product manager is often responsible for strategic aspects, while the Product Owner is a more tactical role. For smaller or less complex products, Product Owners may very well cover both roles simultaneously.
- To what extent is the Product Owner a “product manager”?
There is a fine line between a product manager and a Product Owner role, and it depends on how the role is crystallized in the company’s structure and culture. Usually, besides product management duties, Product Ownership entails establishing the product vision and strategy, its alignment with the company’s goals and objectives, and managing any internal and external stakeholders in this process.
- When was the last time you told a stakeholder “No”? How did you approach this situation, and what was the reason for it?
Saying “no” is an essential qualification—and empowerment—for each Product Owner. For example, it is required to protect the team from a stakeholder’s pet project of a doubtful value. Or to put an end to silo thinking and local optimization within the organization. Product owners create value by shipping the right product and maximizing the amount of work deliberately not done. Because of that, the organization has to respect a “no” from them. Otherwise, they will not fulfill their role: maximizing the product’s value across the whole organization. Applying “Scrum” without an empowered Product Owner creates a great “Waterfall 2.0” process. The Product Owner’s empowerment to decide over the Product Backlog can therefore act as a litmus test of the organization’s adoption of agile principles.
- Your Product Backlog is gated by a “product committee.” It is meeting regularly and applies a kind of Stage Gate® process to approve new features. Can you act as a credible Product Owner if you’re not in control of the Product Backlog?
Suppose a person or a group of individuals, for example, a product council, exercises control over the Product Backlog. In that case, you’re not a Product Owner but a proxy. You’re probably more a product manager that happens to work with an agile team that uses a subset of Scrum. That may work fine, depending on the organization’s nature, culture, and product. But it cannot be called Scrum.
- What “labels” come to your mind when you think of your role as Product Owner?
CEO of the product, product visionary, strategic thinker, servant leader w/o authority, entrepreneur/intrapreneur, innovator, systems thinker, single wringable neck.
- How do you collaborate with the other Scrum Team members?
Early, often, respectfully, transparently, being available regularly, and responding with adequate speed and attention. As the Scrum Guide 2020 states: “The Scrum Team is responsible for all product-related activities from stakeholder collaboration, verification, maintenance, operation, experimentation, research and development, and anything else that might be required.”
- Would you feel bothered if your Scrum Master suggested a possible course of action concerning product development?
Self-organization is at the core of any serious agile framework, Scrum included. Suppose a candidate feels uncomfortable with the concept that the Scrum Team or the Scrum Master have ideas on how product discovery and delivery might improve in the future. In that case, you should dig deeper into that. It’s not a good idea to substitute silos at the department level with “functional silos” within Scrum, when communication, sharing ideas and creating a shared understanding are paramount for Scrum Team’s success.
- If you are the “client” and the Scrum Master is the representative of the delivery entity, how do you best collaborate?
The best way of collaboration for PO and Scrum Master is embracing Scrum Values. Both serve in leadership roles without yielding any authority. Both depend on each other for the Scrum Team’s success, for example, accomplishing a Sprint Goal. They are both also allies concerning coaching the organization to become agile. Daily, the Product Owner is responsible for promptly providing feedback on product matters, clarifying goals, and ensuring that everyone on the Scrum Team understands the product vision. The Scrum Master, in return, needs to support the Product Owner in building an actionable Product Backlog while facilitating an effective collaboration within the Scrum Team in general.
- What roles would you deem necessary for a cross-functional Scrum Team delivering software?
Generally speaking, in an ideal world, the members of a cross-functional team cover all skills that are required by the Scrum Team to deliver value to customers independently. This may work for a product at an early stage when one team is handling everything. When the organization needs to scale, dealing with interdependencies—here: other teams—becomes a necessity. Depending on that, the actual composition of a team highly depends on what the team is delivering. Typical roles in cross-functional teams are business or data analysts, UX and UI designers, Developers (front-end, back-end), QA Developers, and probably DevOps engineers.
- In what Scrum events shall the Product Owner be participating?
The Product Owner is expected to participate in all events: Daily Scrums, Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospectives. Otherwise, the Product Owner cannot answer possible questions quickly, and impediments cannot be solved in a timely fashion, which would contradict the core of being agile.
- Is it necessary to have a product vision to be successful as a Product Owner?
Absolutely. Or, to cite Lewis Carroll: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” The agile product stack starts with the vision and strategy of the company. It then is broken down into a product portfolio—where applicable—and the product roadmap for each service and product, and ends with the corresponding Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs. The Product Owner needs to be familiar with all levels of the agile product stack.
- In what way is the Product Owner a bottleneck for the Scrum Team?
This question deals with how Product Owners can mitigate the risk they pose to the Scrum Team. Often, they slow down the team because the Product Backlog management process is insufficient. There might be several reasons for that: Product Backlog items are created shortly before a Sprint is supposed to start. Or work items do not meet quality standards, as they cannot allocate enough time for their creation and refinement. Beyond the Product Backlog management, they might not be available on short notice to answer questions during a Sprint. A useful way of Product Owner risk mitigation involves the other Scrum Team members at an earlier stage. Or they are encouraging collective ownership of the product by the Scrum Team. This approach is much supported by creating a shared understanding of goals at the team level. (Start with the “Why are we doing this?”)
- How do you know that you are a good Product Owner?
Adding user stories to the Product Backlog merely proves that the PO can handle the ticket system. Measuring real value to customers, however, requires a different approach. Suitable KPIs of the Product Owner’s contribution to the team would focus on the outcome, not output. Examples of such metrics are the lead-time from idea to an available feature, cycle time for valuating ideas, or NPS scores. (Learn more about Evidence-Based Management for Product Owners.)
Set 2: Product Discovery and External Stakeholders
This category of the Product Owner interview questions is branching out into the areas of product discovery and product management:
- Do you think that Scrum is adequately handling the product discovery process?
Lean UX, Lean Startup, Design Thinking, or Service Design are other agile practices that are much better suited for product discovery than Scrum. All that Scrum refers to is that the Product Owner is accountable for managing the Product Backlog. Supposedly, the Product Owner is the individual who knows what is valuable at any given time. But Scrum doesn’t elaborate on how the Product Owner gains this insight.
- How do you learn about new ideas and requirements?
Here, Product Owner candidates should explain their ideas of a product discovery process: From idea, via hypothesis, and experiment and validation. There are various ways to come up with ideas: Through analyzing market needs, industry trends, your data (analytics, NPS, etc.), and the competition. Also, regular sessions with stakeholders, such as sales and customer care, and the Scrum Team(s) tend to be fruitful. Empowering team members to spend a part of their work-time on new ideas is also a powerful practice. (Think of Gmail.) Most importantly, observing customers regularly by running continuous user tests is an effective way of gaining insights for new features, products, and services. This approach is even more useful when the whole Scrum Team actively participates in the process.
- What practices and frameworks can you hire to learn about your customers’ needs?
The candidate should name a few of the leading agile frameworks, such as Jobs-to-be-done, Lean UX, Lean Startup, Design Sprints, Service Design, design ethnography, and lean user testing, NPS, Voice of the Customer, and others.
- How do you include user research in the product discovery process?
User research, or better: user testing, should be a continuous, regular exercise in any product-driven organization. It’s a vital part of the agile build-measure-learn cycle. Practically, this means that communicating with UX designers and researchers becomes an integral part of the work of the PO and the entire Scrum Team. (Ideally, they belong to the team itself.) Also, customer feedback is continuously gathered by running frequent user interviews and observations. Moreover, these ideas also apply to technical projects, for example, API services.
- How much time do you allocate to user research and understanding your customers’ needs?
Spending 50 % of their time with customers would be great. However, if it’s less than 10 %, and if no one else is handling product discovery on behalf of the Product Owner, the product discovery process needs to be improved. For example, by relieving the PO from administrative tasks, such as user story writing. (Note: the Product Owner is not primarily a user story author.)
- How would you design a process to handle product ideas from stakeholders and other members of the organization?
Actively involving stakeholders and members of the general organization in the product discovery process is a sound approach. People like to have a purpose in life and be a part of something larger than themselves. So, providing a possibility to contribute to everyone without regard for their position in the organization will make working as a PO easier. A process for this level of inclusion doesn’t require fancy technology. A simple, shared spreadsheet or form is enough to kick-start it. An initial template to suggest new product features could comprise questions that address the why, the what, and the for whom. It could handle the tactical or strategic nature of the suggestion, a possible time-frame, or an estimate of the expected return on investment. Most importantly, designing the process should be kept agile: start with a simple solution, then improve it once the first experience has been made.
- At what stage do you involve the Scrum Team in the product discovery process?
It is highly recommended to involve the Scrum Team as early as possible in the product discovery process. There are mainly three reasons for that practice: (1) The sooner the Developers participate in the product discovery process, the lesser the chances are that solutions are pursued that are technically not viable or would not result in a return on investment. (2) An early involvement ensures that the Product Owner and the other Scrum Team members develop a shared understanding and ownership of what they will build. This helps significantly allocate resources to the right issues, maximize the customer’s value, and mitigate the investment risk. (3) Developers’ early involvement also ensures their buy-in, a higher commitment level, and the Scrum Team’s willingness to participate in all product development phases. This will provide additional motivation on the Scrum Team’s side to participate in any change needed to accomplish the goals defined for each Sprint/product release.
- How do you determine whether an idea is a worthwhile investment?
There are quantitative and qualitative categories, such as revenue increases, cost-cutting benefits by internal process improvements, increased customer satisfaction rates (NPS), sign-ups from customers for new products, positive customer feedback in customer care, etc. With this open question, Product Owner candidates should demonstrate their knowledge of determining what content constitutes an actionable Product Backlog, maximizing the value of the Developers’ work on behalf of the customers. It opens the area of product metrics broad. It allows for a discussion of outcomes vs. outputs, the escape from the feature factory, and how to overcome the industrial paradigm in general.
- How do you avoid misallocating resources on features or products that no one wants?
Product Owners can avoid misallocating resources by a firm decision at the moment when it is clear that a product or feature is not valuable or not feasible. This means that a continuous monitoring process, such as metrics or regular user tests, needs to be established. Once the build-measure-learn cycle provides proof that an idea or a product is unlikely to succeed, the resource allocation needs to stop. (Don’t allow the “sunk cost” fallacy to cloud your judgment: no matter how much has been already spent, it does not justify to continue working on the product.)
- During which stages is the Product Owner participating in planning activities?
There are several stages in which a Product Owner should participate, starting at the portfolio level to the product stage, to the release planning, and the Sprint Planning. Participation during the vision and strategy stages is highly recommended, though.
Set 3: Internal Stakeholder Management
This category of the Product Owner interview questions deals with specific aspects of relationships of the Product Owners with internal stakeholders:
- Your organization has recently decided to become agile and product-driven. How do you educate your stakeholders about the implications?
- How do you organize the 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 due to 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 that?
- How do you deal with pet projects?
- In the middle of a quarter, the sales department suggests features of doubtful value. Your Scrum Team believes that these features are merely wild guesses to secure the sales bonus. Consequently, they are reluctant to talk about them. How do you handle the situation with the salespeople?
- The sales department often sells new features to close deals without talking to you first. How do you deal with that?
- How do you deal with suggestions for new features and products from stakeholders and other members of the organization?
Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 4: Product Portfolio and 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 portfolio and product roadmap planning anachronisms in an agile organization?
- What is your approach to creating product roadmaps?
- How often shall product roadmaps be planned—once a year?
- How do you connect teams to the product vision and show them how their contributions impact bringing that vision to life?
- Who shall participate in the product roadmap planning?
- How much of your time do you spend talking with customers and researching industry trends?
- What has Monte Carlo to do with projected delivery dates?
Set 5: Product Backlog, Refinement, Work Items, Forecasts, and Estimations
This category of the Product Owner interview questions covers the Product Owner’s home turf: the Product Backlog, its refinement, and work item creation:
- What is the purpose behind the Product Backlog refinement?
- How much time should you spend on Product Backlog refinement?
- How would you organize the “refining” process of Product Backlog items?
- How many Product Backlog items can you work on in parallel to ensure continued relevance to customers and the company?
- You love using the Product Backlog as a kind of repository, adding ideas to continue working on them at a later stage. Over time, you have created over 500 tickets in various stages. What is your take: Can a Scrum Teamwork effectively on 500 tickets?
- At what level do you include other team members in the refinement process?
- How do you identify the value of a Product Backlog item?
- How do you communicate to your team members the value of a backlog item?
- What are good practices to order Product Backlog items?
- How do you handle bugs and technical debt when many valuable new features are competing for resources?
- Why is user story mapping a useful technique for Product Owners?
- How do you best create Product Backlog items?
- What shall a good user story look like? What is it structure?
- Where are you discussing user stories, only during refinement sessions?
- What are typical pitfalls of the Product Backlog refinement?
- Is it necessary to include detailed acceptance criteria with a user-story?
- The Scrum Team requires time to investigate a technical issue with a user story to understand its requirements better. How do you continue with the refinement process of the particular user story?
- One of your stakeholders presents you with such elaborate requirement documents that you copy them into Product Backlog items. Nevertheless, your Scrum Team is not pleased with this approach. Why is that?
- When would you remove a feature?
Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 6: Sprint Planning, Sprint, Sprint Review, and Retrospective
The sixth category that addresses the Sprint itself:
- You are pushing for a critical user story to be selected for the next Sprint. Unfortunately, the final front-end designs still are missing, but the designers promise to deliver no more than two days late into the Sprint. The Scrum Master, however, rejects this idea; the work item is not ready to be selected for a Sprint. What can you do?
- Do you recommend that a Product Owner shall assign work items to individual members of the Scrum Team?
- Should the Product Owner attend the whole Sprint Planning?
- Should the Product Owner attend the Daily Scrums?
- Your Scrum Team, at least that is your impression, regularly estimates work items at the upper end of the possible range. You believe that they are playing safe, creating buffers for “rainy days.” How do you address this?
- A stakeholder tends to broaden the scope of a user story in retrospect by claiming the Scrum Team did not deliver what was requested. How do you deal with that?
- Does the Product Owner have a veto when the release of Product Increments is concerned?
- Do you have to release every Product Increment that was finished during a Sprint?
- How would you organize the Sprint Review?
- During the Sprint Review, the Developers show new functionality you have never seen before. How do you react?
- At the end of the Sprint, do you participate in the Retrospective?
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 competence level, 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 teams 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 Github comment, 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.
Conclusion: How to Use These 71 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions
Scrum has always been a pragmatic business, and to succeed in this mindset, candidates need to have a passion for getting their hands dirty. While the basic rules are trivial, getting a group of individuals with different backgrounds, levels of engagement, and personal agendas, to continuously deliver value by creating a great product is challenging. The larger the organization is, the more management level there are, the more likely failure in one of its many forms is lurking around the corner.
The Product Owner interview questions are not necessarily suited to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an agile expert. However, they support figuring out what candidate has been working in the agile trenches and who’s more likely to be an imposter. (You should avoid inviting candidates from the latter category to a trial.)
Hence it’s probably a good idea to look for a pragmatic veteran who has experienced failure—and success—in other projects before and the scars to prove it.