Author: Katalin Juhász, PMP
The Product Owner (PO) role is sometimes misunderstood yet critical in Agile projects. The Switzerland chapter of PMI has organized an exciting interactive online event again on 13th October, where we could learn about this often overshadowed role. Besides discussing the secrets of the PO role - living up to the expectations of the title of the event - the participants also had the opportunity to gain a first hand experience about an facilitation method, called the fishbowl conversation format, applied in the online space. This method is built on premises, such as the value of experiential learning, assertiveness and the power of discussions, enabling an impactful learning experience. Personally I found the format just as valuable as the shared knowledge about the product owner role itself. Killing two birds with the same stone and all within 90 minutes.
The session was hosted by Patryk Nosalik, PMP, agile PM, project manager of the PMI Romandie Events team, while facilitated by Maria Cortés Astudillo and Nicolas Pages, members of Agile Suisse. María is an industrial engineer, PMP, Professional Scrum Master, Professional Product Owner and Empowering People at the Workplace certified, with over 15 years of experience, successfully building and launching digital applications across multiple channels and formats. Nicolas has more than 20 years of experience in the IS/IT software industry, including 12 years in the supply chain domain acquired in Nestlé. He is a junior coach in design thinking, certified Scrum master and product owner.
After some introduction about the fishbowl format, four volunteers were recruited to join the imaginatory “inner circle”. The selection criteria for the volunteers was to already have experience about the product owner role (either by fulfilling this role earlier, or being close enough to a PO to have a good enough understanding of its requirements and challenges).
The discussion has been kick-started by the four volunteers who shared their views about the “good”, the “bad” and the “ugly” aspects of the product owner role. Not only the facilitators, but also the volunteers had an impressive amount of accumulated experience, making sure the discussion was exciting enough to pin the observers in the outer circle to their screens. After 7 minutes, the observers had the chance to pair up in the breakout room, to discuss what additional questions they would like to ask from the experts in the inner circle, once everyone returned into the virtual plenary room.
We learnt that:
- The biggest challenge and value of the PO role is how to maximize the customer value, while managing the (often latent) customer needs and taking into account the (capacity or technical) limitations of the available resources.
- A key to maximizing the customer value requires the mastering of prioritization, communication (where listening weights with double score) and good negotiation skills. It is also invaluable to have a crystal clear product vision.
- Things can be ugly sometimes, as the PO is right in between the customer and the developer team, trying to carry out a balancing act in a never easing pressure. One wise advice was to accept the fact that it is impossible to make everyone happy at the same time, but instead aim for maximizing the customer value, while considering realistically what is possible.
- While having a good understanding of the developer group is essential to be able to ask the right questions, it might make it more difficult for a PO to have a technical background, as it carries the risk of being dragged too much into the details of the solution. The PO has to keep focus on the “why” and “what” and strongly resist the temptation to design the “how”.
- Trust is a crucial resource in this constellation, as the control of designing the solution, along with estimating the resource needs falls under the responsibility of the developer team. Moreover, the PO also has to recognize the limitations of his knowledge and capabilities, to know when it is better to rely on others.
- While the agile approach can be used in organizations preferring the waterfall approach, it takes a lot of effort to manage expectations and help the client understand how the process will be different. Clarifying, and repetitively refreshing the definition of the PO and SCRUM master could be also indispensable.
While experimenting with a new format is always a risk, based on the feedback of the participants, the session was indeed very effective in helping them to get a deeper understanding of the product owner role. It also served as proof that well designed online events supported by the right technology can be just as effective as physical encounters. Witnessing the continuously improving online facilitation capabilities of these events, I feel assured that we can expect a maintained level of quality, when it's about exchanging knowledge within the PMI community.
We hope to continue hosting more online open space events in the future to come. Therefore we encourage all PMI members if anyone is keen to help in being part of the organisation of creating a regular cycle of interactive Open Space events, then please get in touch with Patryk Nosalik (
The recording of the full event is available here.
Katalin Juhász, PMP
Organizational Developer at SonarSource