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I was recently asked, “What are the most important business analysis skills or techniques that Product Owners need?” My initial response was, “Most – if not all”.

But then I started thinking (a nasty habit that irritates the hell out of those who know me better; apologies especially to my loving and eternally patient wife). BTW, I probably should have done that thinking thing before I responded, but timing never was my strength. Now that I’ve had time to catch up, here’s my take.

A Set of Minimal Viable Skills for Product Owners?

Fundamentally, of course, it all depends (WHAT? All that buildup for such a weak answer? Wait, there is more!). Assuming the Product Owner has a somewhat experienced Agile team that has some experience in the relevant industry, here are my top 7 lean business analysis skills with a defense of why I picked them:

1. Identify Business Problems and Opportunities

For me, this is a no-brainer because I think EVERYONE in a modern organization would benefit from learning new ways to recognize opportunities and problems. Many people spend way too much time talking about problems that are really symptoms of underlying problems. Solid problem analysis skills are a pre-requisite for good decision making in any situation.

2. Brainstorm Creative Solutions and Strategies

Obviously, identifying problems and opportunities is a big deal, but it would be kind of nice if the Product Owner were able to actually figure out how to fix or take advantage of the situation. Equally obvious is that s/he does not need to go it alone, which leads to the next skill.

3. Facilitate Effective Work-groups to Get Necessary Work Done in a Hurry

Collaboration is the basis of productivity in lean and agile work. Getting a group to produce quality outcomes is a skill that turns a mediocre Product Owner into a superstar. The dictionary defines “facilitate” as a verb meaning “make (an action or process) easy or easier”. Anyone who is able to make a task easy or easier achieves far more with a group than the group believes is achievable.

4. Evaluate Alternative Solutions and Strategies to Select the Most Promising

The first solution or strategy that comes to mind is not always the best. Actually, the entire concept of Agile development implies constantly improving a product to increase the value it provides the customer.

When picking a course of action, the great Product Owner can compare potential alternatives and pick the one most likely to succeed. Getting started on the right foot makes any journey easier. Of course, it is confusing that the left foot can be just as right as the right foot (sorry, I just had to slip that one in).

5. Prioritize Features to Define the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or Minimum Viable Feature (MVF) For A Given Release

Proper prioritization is essential to the success of lean and agile development. Without priorities, any work will be chaotic and counterproductive. There are a number of prioritization techniques that work for selecting the stories, features, etc. that will be included in the next release. I think it is important for the Product Owner to know several because IMHO no prioritization technique works for every situation. Pick the best and ignore the rest.

6. Define the Selected Solution and Strategy in Verifiable Features, Stories, or NFR

Communicating what the Agile Team has to deliver for the upcoming release to be successful is the primary job of the Product Owner. Obviously, we do not recommend falling back on antiquated documentation habits of writing Victorian novels that nobody reads.

However, the Product Owner does have to find a way of expressing the desired outcome in a manner that developers are most likely to successfully deliver. User Stories, Epics, Feature Lists, Examples or Scenarios, and all the other wonderful lean business analysis devices work well if they are correctly understood and implemented. S/he also needs to know how detailed to express the needs to stay ahead of the agile team without wasting time working on things that never make it to development.

7. Prove the Implemented Solution or Strategy Provides the Promised Customer Value

In the end, someone must evaluate the outcome of development and decide whether it can survive in the real world. This implies that the selected Functions, Features, User Stories, NFR, etc. meet necessary quality standards. Proving that requires the ability to capture and execute real-life Examples or Scenarios that give the team the confidence that what they delivered does what they wanted it to do.

A Viable Alternative: Business-side Team PLUS Business Analyst

If the Agile team is less experienced, the skill set of the Product Owner must compensate. The good news is s/he does not have to “go it alone”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with building a business-side team including business analysts to provide the requisite skills.

That might be a better alternative in most situations, because being a full-time Product Owner is not for the faint-hearted. As s/he works with multiple products and different Agile teams, s/he may need most – if not all – of the business analysis techniques. Of course, this alternative implies that the Product Owner has the ability to recognize when to use which technique — and why.

In retrospect, perhaps my original “Most if not all” answer was the best. It certainly saves time and leverages existing skills of those wearing the Business Analysis hat. Sounds like a win-win for those who chose lean business analysis as a profession. Damn, I’m too smart for my own good. Seriously, I mean really dangerously so.

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