As a product owner and Agile coach, I’ve spent countless hours helping teams and stakeholders understand and articulate product-related decisions. With the stress to meet leadership and customer expectations, I am often reminded of the most valuable question a product owner must ask to be successful in his or her role. It’s a variation of the same question endlessly asked by young children, often to the annoyance of their parents: Why?
In life or in business, it makes sense to know why we’re doing a particular task or activity on any given day. But think about it — have you ever spent time at work plugging away at a project, only to wonder why your company ever decided to spend money in the first place? Do you know the “why” of your own work? Or do you struggle to see how it connects to the bigger, strategic picture? Have you ever asked “why” when stuck in one of those spirals of seemingly meaningless activity — only to deal with the aftermath of your boss’s reaction?
Asking why is not a very easy, or very popular, thing to do. Even the most intelligent among us have difficulty asking this simple, one-word retrospective question before taking action. Doing so can unearth decisions that reveal you or your company have failed to truly understand the problem. And no one likes to admit they’ve failed.
As product owners, we’ve been tasked with the tremendous responsibility of knowing why a customer or stakeholder would want a particular product or feature. We need to ask why we’re considering that feature or roadmap priority because it ensures we deliver value to our customers.
According to Scrum.org, the primary responsibility of the product owner is to maximize the value of the product or product increments we deliver. How can we know we’re delivering value if we don’t know why we’re developing something in the first place?
Failing to ask this all-important question means we end up making a lot of assumptions about what a customer wants. Is the product backlog item coming from a sales rep with a very unhappy customer? Is the rep requesting you do exactly what that one customer says, even if it means creating a feature no one else will care about?
Product owners need to ask why in order to ensure there’s a clear vision and purpose behind product development — and to avoid making reactionary choices. Saying no to important customers or stakeholders can be difficult. But it’s also an important skill for product owners to master in order to protect the product.
There are numerous ways of asking open-ended questions to get to the why, but here are some examples that have proven useful in my conversations with clients or stakeholders:
There are also ways to find out why without asking anyone. The following methods of getting to the why behind the scenes are critical to being a great product owner:
Successful product owners are great communicators and question askers. This inquisitiveness — even if at times received as a bit pesky — will ultimately be met with appreciation when you deliver products that people love. Ultimately, the ability to ask why is critical to your success and the success of your product.