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The Only Question a Product Owner Needs to Ask

Tags: Product Owner , Columbus

As I type this post, I have 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/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 are 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 are 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 deal with the aftermath of your boss’s reaction? Asking why is not a popular question. 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 have 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 are considering a feature or roadmap priority because it ensures that we are delivering value to our customers. According to, 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 are delivering value if we don’t know why we are developing something in the first place?

What Happens When We Don’t Ask Why

When we don’t ask “why” the first thing that happens is we end up making a lot of assumptions on what a customer wants. Is the product backlog item coming from a sales rep with a very unhappy customer and is 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 the why questions to make sure there is a vision and purpose behind product development and to not make reactionary choices. Saying “no” can be very difficult with important customers or stakeholders, but it is also an important word for product owners to learn and say to protect the product (sounds like that could be it’s own blog post! Note to self).

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 customers or stakeholders:

  1. What problem are we trying to solve? Instead of hearing “I want X, Y, and Z…” this question gets to the heart of why a customer may be struggling with a current product, or even for new products, identify opportunities to innovate or provide a unique solution. To get a customer to pay attention to a product, there has to be something in it for them. If you as a product owner can find a way to make their lives better or easier by using your product or certain feature, you will gain their purchase. From there, it will be up to you to keep their trust and engagement.
  2. What unique value will X feature or product provide? This would be a question to pose to stakeholders that may have already jumped to a solution before even knowing the answer to question #1 above. Especially if the solution recommendation sounds like something else you’ve seen in a competing product, we need to make sure even if it is a similar product or feature, what makes it of unique and compelling value to a customer.
  3. How do you/do customers perform X activity today? And what frustrates you when using this product or feature presently? This question works well when working directly with customers using a current product. Or, if slightly reframing the question, a way to learn a process or activity that a prospective customer could use help with if provided with your unique product solution. Knowing the pain points of a current product or feature can also point the way to developing in a much smarter way.
  4. The 5 Whys There are many articles written on this root cause analysis technique brought to us by Lean, so I will only summarize here. The idea of this question asking approach is to ask an open-ended variation of the why question applied to a particular problem or process. It goes something like this:
    1. You start with a Problem statement: We cannot use the summary report provided.
    2. Why? Because the report is not generating correctly.
    3. Why? Because the report is missing five fields in the export.
    4. Why? Because the five fields were not requested to be part of the original report export when initially capturing the requirements.
    5. Why (Root Cause)? Because customers did not need these fields when we originally gathered the report requirements.

Finding the ‘Why’ Yourself Without Even Asking

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

  1. Usage metrics points us to Why When faced with the decision to continue developing a product, or product features, having actual metrics based on the usage of our products and features is critical to understanding customer behavior and where we’re providing value. These key points show where the customer is most engaged and reveal a lot about where we should invest valuable development time and resources, and where we shouldn’t.
  2. Research points us to Why We’re only assuming we know what a customer wants if we don’t ask. Customer research and feedback is critical to understanding the problems we can solve and the value we can deliver to a customer. Anything less can leave us falling short of meeting customer expectations—or creating products no one will value.
  3. Test your product How often do you test drive your own products and experience first hand using them as your customers would? Is the user experience painful? Is it okay, but a little bit clunky in some features? If you find something hard, painful, or annoying to use wouldn’t somebody else?

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.


About The Author

Senior Consultant, Project Services

Tammy is a Product Consultant & Team Lead in Cardinal's Columbus office. She is passionate about creating meaningful digital product solutions for clients and loves the challenge of solving customer problems. Tammy is 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.