5 Critical Product Owner Interview Questions

A Product Owner is vital for a Scrum Team. A person fulfilling this accountability helps ensure a product is successful by maximizing the value delivered. Making the wrong decision when hiring for this role can be catastrophic for your team and product. No pressure, right?

If you’re preparing your Product Owner interview questions and have ‘how much time do you spend in Jira?’ or ‘how good are you at multitasking?’ on your list, you may be missing the point. In fact, these type of questions communicate to potential applicants that you don’t understand the role you’re seeking to fill. Instead, consider some of the following questions when interviewing a potential Product Owner. (And in case you missed it, we have some suggestions for Scrum Master interview questions, too.)

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1. What is value?

This is a challenging question, but an important one. If a Product Owner’s role is to maximize value, a Product Owner should understand what value is, and how to articulate that to others. 

Look for concise answers that relate to customer happiness, desired business outcomes, social good, or some combination of those three. If they can relate value to the cost of said value, even better. No iPhone is worth $100 million. It’s valuable to you because it provides deep utility at a reasonable price considering how much utility delivers.

2. How do you know you are delivering value to your customers?

A candidate that says “because I got sign-off” is a person not ready for the role. Look for someone who is comfortable with the unknown and experimentally verifying their ideas to gather more knowledge. 

A Product Owner must assume everything they think might be wrong until validated in the marketplace. Every feature idea, every stakeholder request, every wild hope, and dream could be totally of the mark until you see results from your customers. They should always be looking for ways to empirically measure success and customer happiness through frequent inspection of analytics tools, usage statistics, support requests, reviews, anything they can get their hands on which might show true results. 

“Frequent” is a key word here. Scrum is designed to gather facts and review facts at a high enough frequency to catch small mistakes before they become big mistakes. 

3. What is the point of Scrum?

This is a tricky question but the answer is actually quite simple. Look for simplicity in the answer. If they go on and on about a “methodology” and rules and tactics, they’re not the right person. 

You’re looking for someone who thinks about Scrum as a strategic tool for obtaining a competitive advantage. The whole point of Scrum is to produce a usable and valuable increment every single Sprint without fail. This mitigates the risk of producing the wrong product, and leverages empiricism to steer us toward the right product. Especially if the new increment of product gets in the hands of their stakeholders. 

By relentlessly focusing on producing an Increment that is usable, inspectable, and releasable – in other words, “Done” – you can mitigate the risk more effectively. If a Scrum Team does not produce something usable and valuable every Sprint, they’re merely spending the company’s money and increasing the risk of missed expectations. The longer a team goes without producing a new increment of value, the more risk is created.

4. What is the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as a Product Owner?

Many answers would work for this one, depending on your specific needs. However, look for responses that speak to making hard choices between competing stakeholder priorities, solutions, or features when there isn’t a perfectly clear path to success. 

A Product Owner has to make hard choices with imperfect information all the time. The whole point of the role is having someone empowered to make these decisions quickly, nimbly toward product success.

5. Tell us a time where had to say no. Why was that your answer?

“No” to a BLT for lunch? “No” to hanging out with co-workers for a happy hour? Borrrring. You’re looking for the difficult “no”s delivered. Like when a Product Owner’s boss tells them to change their Product Backlog incorporating their own ideas. If it doesn’t make sense to do so, that should be a hard “no”. 

Bonus points if the candidate knows the delicate dance of giving a “no” that sounds like a “yes”. For example: the boss asks you to put their number one priority at the top of the backlog. If it’s not a ridiculous idea, just not worth doing now, they should say “yes” and show them where you think it makes sense on the Product Backlog given context and all the higher value things that need to be tackled. 

“No” is hard to say to someone who has authority. And to address a difficult subject here’s a quote from the Scrum Guide:

“For Product Owners to succeed, the entire organization must respect their decisions. These decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog, and through the inspectable Increment at the Sprint Review.”

There Are No Perfect Product Owner Interview Questions

While we think the above are great product owner interview questions, it is important to note that there’s no single list of questions that will be the perfect set for any interview. Use the above as starting points, and make your own decisions on where to dig when talking to a potential Product Owner for your organization.

To effectively build and lead a Scrum Team, you need to know what you’re looking for and why Scrum works. If you’re not comfortable with these ideas, it’s a good idea to level up your knowledge. Reading the Scrum Guide or taking a class Scrum training class are great ways to start. Without the understanding of the “why” behind Scrum practices, it will be very difficult to successfully hire the Product Owner your team needs.

It’s very common to think of a Product Owner as a requirements-gatherer, or just someone that interfaces between the Stakeholders and the Developers. If you’re looking for just a go-between, you’re likely missing the point of a Product Owner. Scrum is about delivering value early and often, it’s about being responsive to change, it’s about empirical decision-making in product development. If you don’t hire someone who understands Scrum theory, you will miss out on the greatest benefits of Scrum.

At Responsive Advisors, we can help you understand the “why” behind Scrum, when to apply it, when to try something else, and how to effectively build a successful team. We exist to help you become more responsive to change. We know that training can be boring, but that’s not how we operate. If you need help going deeper into how to hire a Product Owner, become a Scrum Master, or build a team, we’d love to help.

Greg Crown

Likes baking, craft beer, whisk(e)y & beaches.
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