TL; DR: Product Owner Interview Questions: The Product Mindset
If you are looking to fill a position for a Product Owner in your organization, you may find the following 82 interview questions useful to identify the right candidate. This 8th set of Product Owner interview questions addresses the product mindset.
The questions are derived from my sixteen 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. So far, this Product Owner interview guide has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.
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The free 82 Product Owner Interview Questions ebook 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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The Role of the Product Owner According to the Scrum Guide
According to the Scrum Guide, Product Owners have a vital role in the value creation process of the Scrum team:
- Page 5: The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.
- Page 6: The Product Owner is also accountable for effective Product Backlog management, which includes developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal.
- Page 6: The Product Owner is also accountable for effective Product Backlog management, which includes creating and clearly communicating Product Backlog items.
- Page 6: The Product Owner is also accountable for effective Product Backlog management, which includes ordering Product Backlog items.
There is a reason why some refer to the Product Owner role as the “Achilles heel” of the Scrum team or the “single wringable neck.” Take out the Product Owner—by organizational design or choosing the wrong candidate—and Scrum mutates into a pretty solid waterfall 2.0 process.
PO Interview Questions Set 8: The Product Mindset
Becoming an agile, learning organization focused on creating customer value is about developing a product mindset everywhere, from the individual to the C-level. Employing Scrum can be a major stepping stone on this journey when the management empowers Product Owners and is not merely regarding Scrum as a delivery means to ship more features, products, and services within the constraints of the iron (project) triangle.
Again, a fully formed and empowered Product Owner is crucial for a transformation success at that level. The following set of questions regarding the product mindset is designed to better understand a candidate’s perspective: Do they probably have what it takes to fill the shoes of the Product Owner role?
Q 77: First Principles of the Product Mindset
Looking back at your professional experience, can you name some first principles of a Product Owner with a product mindset?
This question allows the Product Owner candidate to reflect on their core beliefs of product management in general and the Product Owner role in particular. My top three choices of the first principles of the product mindset are:
- A successful Product Owner is an agile product manager at heart.
- Product Ownership is a leadership position in the first place. It is not about churning out deliverables at an ever-increasing speed to maximize the output of the Scrum team. Great Scrum teams abandon the feature factory early.
- Stakeholder collaboration is essential to becoming a successful Product Owner. Having the final say on the composition and ordering of the Product Backlog does not mean monopolizing the decision-making process. Successful Product Owners learn to lead and delegate early.
Q 78: The Product Focus of Successful Product Owners
You have worked with Product Owners (and product managers) in the past. How did the successful ones master the challenges of the role? Moreover, where did the less successful ones fail?
In my experience, successful Product Owners manage to split their time between different responsibilities and stakeholders without getting lost in details or failing to communicate appropriately while guiding everyone in the right direction: Accomplishing the product vision.
The key to achieving this level of alignment among the critical stakeholders is that they know how to delegate decisions while being transparent about the underlying system. Moreover, they include everyone at a meaningful level in the subsequent communication and collaboration, respectively, using the “vision, validation, value” approach.
A less successful PO typically fails to have a product mindset and act as a team player. They fail at being product leaders. Instead, they are typically stuck in the scribe mode, refusing to delegate work that others can perfectly handle for them. For example, there is no reason why a PO would create and write all Product Backlog items themselves. In my experience, Developers can author PBi very well.
Also, they tend to shield the rest of the Scrum team from communicating with stakeholders, namely customers and users. Establishing these team-internal functional silos — Developers develop and do not talk to customers — often lowers innovation and productivity. Generally, they tend to create a bubble for themselves where falling victim to confirmation bias is not uncommon. They start loving their solution instead of the customers’ problem.
Additionally, less successful Product Owners also tend to invest less in creating a product mindset throughout the organization. For example, they rely less on joined work sessions with stakeholders like user story mapping, value stream mapping, or impact mapping. Also, they are less transparent about the status quo and where the Scrum team is heading.
Q 79: The Product Mindset in a Quickly Growing Organization
Your new product proves to be very desirable in the market, and your organization—and hence the number of Scrum teams and stakeholders—is increasing rapidly in size. So, how do you preserve a product mindset as the responsible Product Owner?
Here, the candidate should point at the importance of embracing empiricism, self-management, and autonomy to deliver value to customers within the constraints of the organization while creating a sustainable return on investment for the latter:
- Embrace self-management as a good way to cope with increasing demands regarding the Product Owner’s contributions.
- Delegate work to other Scrum team members, particularly regarding Product Backlog management and refinement.
- Create a transparent system to structure product discovery by including stakeholders.
- Be transparent about the upcoming work and artifacts to allow for inspection and adaptation.
- Go the extra mile with stakeholders (internal and external) to ensure their active participation in Scrum events.
- Generally, foster alignment and collaboration among stakeholders and Scrum team members.
- Set up and support a training program for stakeholders to understand the needs and opportunities of the product department better.
Q 80: Growing the Product Mindset as a Product Owner in Your Organization
In what ways can you support your personal growth as a Product Owner if your organization is still stuck in the old ways and far from developing a product mindset?
Even the longest journey starts with the first steps. If the “Product Owner” position is currently that of a glorified scribe taking requirements from stakeholders, and you aim to move to the entrepreneur level, I would at least explore the following steps:
- Convince the organization that becoming a learning organization by applying Scrum in a complex environment is not just a hiring technique but a sound business decision. Achieving business agility will pay dividends for everyone.
- The best way to do so is to succeed as a Scrum team within the given constraints.
- Consequently, support your Scrum team on its path to fully embrace Scrum, namely self-management, as the entrepreneur level is focused on product leadership. The groundwork, such as Product Backlog item creation and refinement, will need to be handled by others.
- Invest in networking within the organization by including stakeholders in the Scrum team’s work, for example, regarding product discovery. The further towards the entrepreneur level a PO moves, the more support they need from the C-level.
- Be transparent in everything you do. Moreover, be unbiased and non-corruptible at the same time.
- Be generous in supporting stakeholders in whatever form is necessary, for example, by offering training classes, authoring internal newsletters, or promoting Scrum events within the organization.
Q 81: Spreading the Product Focus among Scrum Teammates
How can you help other Scrum team members, namely the Developers, develop a product mindset?
Speaking with John Doerr, you want missionaries, not mercenaries on your team. To achieve that state, I would recommend taking the following steps:
- Encourage Product Backlog management by Developers, for example, by ensuring that Developers fully understand the big picture, starting with the ‘Why.’
- Possible other Scrum team activities are collaboratively working on Product Goals, customer and user personas, impact maps, user story maps, prototypes, marketing strategies, business plans and models, stakeholder maps/radars, etc.
- Involve Developers in product discovery activities, for example, user research. (Having Developers observe or talk to customers and users is highly beneficial in my experience.)
- Encourage everyone on the team to regularly work in customer care to better understand everyday issues our product or service causes.
Please note that not all Developers feel comfortable with the idea of investing much time in communicating or collaboration with stakeholders while neglecting to build the product or service. (Some just like to solve puzzles all day long — which is okay as you cannot force people to get involved in these activities.)
Q 82: Engaging with Stakeholders to Further the Product Focus
So, embracing a “customer problem first” perspective, thus developing a product mindset throughout the organization, seems to be a good bet to create value for everyone. How would you engage with different groups of stakeholders in the process? How have you done so successfully in the past?
The question is designed to provide the Product Owner candidate with room to share their experience and shine. Also, it is about understanding whether they have a holistic approach to stakeholder communication and what drives a stakeholder to interact with a Scrum team. Interacting comes in many different forms, from exercising control to pursuing goals (probably also personal agendas) to being kept in the loop. The candidate should have explored some of the following approaches to stakeholder engagement:
Engaging with users:
- Invest in continuous user research, including all Scrum team members.
- Invite users to Sprint Reviews.
- Invite users to collaborative exercises, for example, user story mapping, etc.
- Encourage Scrum team members to work in customer care to understand better user needs regularly.
- Create a transparent system to support continuous product discovery and invite your users.
Engaging with providers:
- Apply the same rules to providers and contractors that apply to everyone on the team or within the organization.
- Make providers and contractors “full” team members, down to the level of email addresses.
- Consequently, do not privilege internal team members over external ones if not mandated for legal or governance reasons.
Engaging with governance people:
- Understand the constraint they are working under; try walking in their shoes.
- Include the governance people as early as possible in the Scrum team’s work, for example, regarding creating a Definition of Done.
- Align with them on roadmaps, Product Goals, and other near- and mid-term planning exercises.
- Know your (governance) stakeholder: The best tech is not necessarily the best solution from a compliance perspective. (In my experience, for example, a continuous delivery capability can turn out to be unnecessary gold-plating and thus waste if a legally required audit takes a week anyway.)
- Be cautious, though, that some governance stakeholders may be tempted to use your openness to strengthen their position within the organizational power-play.
Engaging with influencers:
- Learn to distinguish between the formal role of “influencer” and the individual that genuinely exercises influence. Sometimes, the formal role bearer and the real influencer are not identical.
- Invest in networking within the higher levels of the organization to build rapport with prospective influencers and learn early about change coming your way.
- Keep your friends close, keep your opponents closer.
Conclusion: How to Use These 82 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.
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