Hiring: 71 Product Owner Interview Questions—Sprint Planning, Review, and Retrospective
TL; DR: 71 Product Owner Interview Questions to Avoid Imposters
If you are looking to fill a position for a Product Owner in your organization, you may find the following 71 interview questions useful to identify the right candidate. They are derived from my fourteen years of practical experience with XP and Scrum, serving both as Product Owner and Scrum Master and interviewing dozens of Product Owner candidates on behalf of my clients.
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Download the 71 Product Owner Interview Questions Ebook
The free 71 Product Owner Interview Questions PDF is not merely listing the questions, but also contains background information on:
- Why the questions are useful in the process, and…
- A range of appropriate answers.
Two to three questions from each category will provide more than enough ground for an engaging initial 60 minute-long conversation with candidates.
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71 Product Owner Interview Questions
Scrum is not a methodology but a framework. There are no rules that apply to each scenario, just good practices that have worked in other organizations before. Hence, you have to figure out on your own what is working for your organization. Finding this answer is a process and not a destination.
The role of the Product Owner itself is making the hiring process difficult to handle. The Product Owner is the least well-defined accountability within the Scrum framework and—at the same time—the one Scrum role with the most facets. (Please note that I will continue using ‘role’ on occasions throughout this document, although the Scrum Guide 2020 now speaks of ‘accountabilities.’)
A Product Owner is an innovator at heart and thus a value creator for customers and organizations if given a chance to work in an agile manner. The Product Owner is also the most vulnerable Scrum role. Turn them into a [fill-in a ticket-system of your choice] monkey or deprive them of the ability to say ‘no’—as in being the guardian of the Product Backlog—, and the Product Owner quickly becomes the Achilles heel of any agile organization.
The Product Owner role depends on the size of an organization, the industry it is operating in, its culture, and the lifecycle stage of that organization’s product(s). Lastly, there is an overlap with the product manager role. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t identical.)
The following interview questions are neither suited nor intended to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an agile software development expert. But in a seasoned practitioner’s hands, they support figuring out who of the candidates has been successfully working the agile trenches in the past. Remember, “Agile” is a mindset, not a methodology. Hence, no checklist can drive your recruiting success to the desired outcome.
Product Owner Interview Questions: The Organization of Questions and Answers
The ebook provides both questions as well as guidance on the range of suitable answers. These should allow an interviewer to deep dive into candidates’ understanding of Scrum and their agile mindset. However, please note that:
- The answers reflect the personal experience of the author and may not be valid for every organization: what works for organization A is probably failing in organization B,
- There are not suitable multiple choice questions to identify a candidate’s agile mindset given the complexity of applying “agile” to any organization,
- The author has a holistic view of agile practices: agile equals product discovery (what to build) plus product delivery (how to build it).
Please find the following set #6 of the 71 Product Owner interview questions to identify suitable candidates for the role of Product Owner:
Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions Set 6: Sprint Planning, Sprint, Sprint Review, and Retrospective
The sixth category that addresses the Sprint itself:
- You are pushing for a critical user story to be selected for the next Sprint. Unfortunately, the final front-end designs still are missing, but the designers promise to deliver no more than two days late into the Sprint. The Scrum Master, however, rejects this idea; the work item is not ready to be selected for a Sprint. What can you do?
It is a negotiation with the Scrum Team. The answer depends on the team’s situation and experience: If the designers are likely delivering—they have always kept their promises in the past—, and the Developers could accomplish the user story nevertheless within the Sprint, and the Developers agree with the situation, it is probably an acceptable exception.
Ultimately, the Scrum Team’s decision is whether to pick the work item for the next Sprint.
- Do you recommend that a Product Owner shall assign work items to individual members of the Scrum Team?
That is unacceptable behavior, as the Developers are self-organizing. Hence distributing tasks among themselves is their prerogative.
- Should the Product Owner attend the whole Sprint Planning?
Let’s have a closer look at the Sprint Planning:
The Product Owner presents the business objective of the next Sprint to the Scrum Team. Collaboratively, the Scrum Team creates the Sprint Goal. The Developers then pick— considering all circumstances, for example, available capacity—those Product Backlog items they deem necessary to achieve the Sprint Goal. The presence of the Product Owner during this part of the Sprint Planning is essential.
Often, the Developers now add details to the Sprint Backlog items, for example, splitting them up into tasks, identifying parts that need further clarification, or agreeing on who will be working on what tasks. Product Owners do not necessarily need to participate in this part of the Sprint Planning. But they need to be on stand-by for additional questions.
- Should the Product Owner attend the Daily Scrums?
By all means, yes. That way, the Product Owner can answer quickly, thus avoiding unnecessary delays.
- Your Scrum Team, at least that is your impression, regularly estimates work items at the upper end of the possible range. You believe that they are playing safe, creating buffers for “rainy days.” How do you address this?
Trust is the beginning of all. And the Developers do not trust the process, or the line management, or the stakeholders. This mistrust might be rooted in the organization’s culture, a former experience, or the work item’s quality. The team might also be too junior to understand some work items’ implications fully. Or the product is suffering from technical debt, which makes estimates generally more volatile.
The candidate should name some reasons for the behavior and suggest joining with the Scrum Master to provide the team with a path to let this habit go. The issue would make an outstanding topic for the Sprint Retrospective.
- A stakeholder tends to broaden the scope of a user story in retrospect by claiming the Scrum Team did not deliver what was requested. How do you deal with that?
This kind of stakeholder behavior is not acceptable. It is the Product Owner’s objective to understand the scope of a feature request in advance clearly. Sneaking in features through the backdoor a typical Scrum anti-pattern that needs to be investigated and addressed.
This question opens the discussion on how to deal with selfish stakeholders, particularly in organizations that haven’t yet fully embraced the Product Owner concept.
- Does the Product Owner have a veto when the release of Product Increments is concerned?
The Scrum Guide is not explicit about this situation. On the one side, the Scrum Team decides on when to release what Increment to the customers. On the other side, the Product Owner is “is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team.”
This question opens the discussion on Scrum’s built-in checks and balances and how effective collaboration within the Scrum Team might work.
- Do you have to release every Product Increment that was finished during a Sprint?
The Scrum Team decides on when to release what Increment to the customers. There is no automatism for the release.
- How would you organize the Sprint Review?
It is not the Product Owner’s task to organize the Sprint Review, but the whole Scrum Team should be eager to experience it. The Sprint Review is a critical opportunity to inspect the previous Sprint’s outcome, align with stakeholders, and adapt the Product Backlog to serve the customers with the next Sprint best.
- During the Sprint Review, the Developers show new functionality you have never seen before. How do you react?
This behavior is undoubtedly an anti-pattern of a successful Scrum Team as it violates several Scrum principles, for example, providing transparency or adhering to openness and respect.
First of all, Developers should never work on items the Product Owner does not know. Bypassing the Product Owner in that respect shows a significant deficit in understanding Scrum basics and should immediately be addressed in collaboration with the Scrum Master. (Learn more: Gold-Plating Beyond Done — Making Your Scrum Work #7.)
- At the end of the Sprint, do you participate in the Retrospective?
Absolutely, Product Owners are members of the Scrum Team. Hence they participate in the Sprint Retrospective.
Conclusion: How to Use These 71 Scrum Product Owner Interview Questions
Scrum has always been a pragmatic business, and to succeed in this mindset, candidates need to have a passion for getting their hands dirty. While the basic rules are trivial, getting a group of individuals with different backgrounds, levels of engagement, and personal agendas, to continuously deliver value by creating a great product is challenging. The larger the organization is, the more management level there are, the more likely failure in one of its many forms is lurking around the corner.
The Product Owner interview questions are not necessarily suited to turn an inexperienced interviewer into an agile expert. However, they support figuring out what candidate has been working in the agile trenches and who’s more likely to be an imposter. (You should avoid inviting candidates from the latter category to a trial.)
Hence it’s probably a good idea to look for a pragmatic veteran who has experienced failure—and success—in other projects before and the scars to prove it.
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