Close up of a hand building out the word why with letters

The Only Question a Product Owner Needs to Ask

7 Apr 2016 by Tammy Lawlor

I've spent hours working with a new product team in preparing their roadmap and backlog requirements for the first half of 2017. In coaching this business team through their list of backlog items and priorities, I was reminded of the most valuable question a product owner or product manager asks and must keep asking to be successful in his or her role — and to ensure the product is successfully received by customers. It’s essentially a variation of the same question and one most children ask and annoy adults with as they're learning new things.

Great product owners always ask why.

Whether in business or in life, it makes a lot of sense to know why we're doing any task or activity on a given day. But think about it. Have you ever spent time at work plugging away at a project and then wonder why your company ever decided to spend money on it in the first place? Do you even 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 these spirals of seemingly meaningless activity — and then dealt with the aftermath of your boss’s reaction?

Asking why is not popular because even a lot of smart people don’t always ask this retrospective, one-worded question enough before taking action. And it can unearth decisions that reveal you or your company failed to understand the problem … and no one likes to admit they’ve failed.

Why ask why?

As product owners, we've been tasked with the tremendous responsibility of knowing why a customer or stakeholder would want our product or feature. We need to ask why we're considering a feature or roadmap priority because it ensures we're delivering 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 do we know we're delivering value if we don’t know why we're developing something in the first place?

What happens when we don’t ask why?

When we don’t ask why, 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 the customer says (even if it creates a feature no one else will care about)? Product owners need to ask why to make sure there's a vision and purpose behind product development — and to avoid making reactionary choices. Saying no can be very difficult with important customers or stakeholders, but it's also an important word for product owners to learn and say to protect the product.

Variations on the why question

There are numerous ways of asking open-ended questions to get to the why, but here are some that have proven useful in my conversations with clients or stakeholders:

Finding the why yourself without even asking

Did you know there are ways to find out why without even asking anyone? It’s true, and the following methods of getting to why behind the scenes are also critical to being a great product owner. Here’s how:

Successful product owners are great communicators and question askers. This inquisitiveness, even if at times received as you being a bit of a pest, will ultimately be met with appreciation when you deliver products people love. And really, that means asking why is critical to your success and to the success of your product.

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About Tammy Lawlor
Senior Consultant, Project Services

Tammy is passionate about creating meaningful digital product solutions for clients and solving client challenges. She's also a certified product owner and Scrum Master Professional. Outside of work, you can find her planning her next travel adventure or deep in a book or conversation.

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