Building a Product Owner – Existing Backlog

Product Owners – like great products – must be developed.  While some skills are innate, others must be learned and organizations tend to throw new Product Owners into the mix without adequate information. In this blog series, we have explored new product owners who are assigned to new products and those owning a system migration.  Now we are going to explore a new product owner who takes over an existing product with a robust product backlog.  In some respects, one might think this is the easiest of the three scenarios but it comes with its own set of challenges.  Here are some tips for how to get started.

1. Get to know your customers

The first step to get your arms around an existing backlog is to understand your current customers.  To do this, you need both

Backlog in Jira Agile

Backlog in Jira Agile

qualitative and quantitative information.  Data is always your friend.  How many customers do you have?  Are they profitable?  Are they the ideal customers that you want to attract?  Once you understand the numbers, now you need to actually talk to customers.  Schedule interviews with key customers – both happy ones and those that are frustrated.  Use your strong product management skills by asking open ended questions.  My favorite is “What keeps you up at night?”  Let your customers talk or complaint or suggest – wherever the conversation goes can be valuable.  Knowing who is buying your product is very important.

2. Assessing the Priority

Figuring out the right priority of the items in an existing backlog can be very difficult. The current priority might be based on bad information, political pressure or inexperience.  It might also be well thought-out and prioritized based on business value.  But you won’t know for sure until you dig in and do some assessments.  Again, the interviews with existing clients will provide insights, as will talking to the sales force and customer service, and understanding where the product fits in the marketplace.  Armed with this information, a new product owner can evaluate the items in the backlog for their true business value to the organization.  It is important to be decisive but also collaborative.  It may sound like a difficult balance but by listening and learning, the backlog will start to take shape.

3. Add Definition

The biggest problems with most backlogs for existing products is that they are ill defined.  The stories are overly general or vague and lack a clear understand of what needs to be delivered.  A new product owner can really differentiate themselves, the backlog and the product by jumping in and learning the product.  The more a product owner knows, the easier it is to see what needs to be changed or added.  There are a number of ways to get to additional definition.  One common method is to ask a question over and over: “And then what happens?”  By taking an idea and pressing on it, it will start to become more clear.  Adding clarity to the existing backlog, combined with a fresh look at prioritization, will allow the new product owner to add value to the organization.


I am a product owner.  I was a product owner before we were called product owners.  I have been practicing the values and principles of Agile long before the Manifesto was written.  That is why this has been an easy transition for me and why I am so passionate about marrying the discipline of Product Management with the flexibility and structure of Agile.  But my biggest complaint continues to be the pressure and expectations put on Product Owners with little training or support.  Agile emphasizes the importance of the team – and the product owner is part of the team.  We need to support our new product owners and help them to understand their new role.  Whether they are creating a new product, managing a system migration or taking over an existing backlog, there are tips and tricks to help them get started.  Here’s to better products and happy product owners!


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