The one word that makes or breaks a Product Owner

Helen Angharad-Williams is a Senior Agile Trainer at This is Milk, an official delivery partner of The Scottish Digital Academy.

Post by Helen Angharad-Williams


If you’ve been a Product Owner for any length of time, chances are you’ve been developing a vocabulary of words that identify you with the product and agile community. Backlog – the thing you own, refine, order, use to communicate and discuss work with your team. Roadmap – your statement of intent around what increments of your product are coming next. Value – that intangible concept you’re forever chasing and trying to deliver. Customer – sometimes friend, sometimes foe but always at the centre of your thoughts and conversations. Yet, none of these words are as important as the one word that can make or break the Product Owner role. It’s a short word that’s rarely even associated with agile at all, but it is the most important part of a Product Owners vocabulary – ‘No’.

Without ‘No’, there is no ‘Maximising the amount of work NOT done’. If work is not being done, then someone must have said ‘no’ to it at some point? Otherwise, we just say yes to everything. Without ‘No’, there is no prioritisation. Everything is equally important, and we fail to maximise the focus on value in our increments of delivery. Without ‘No’, there is no power for Product Owners, and if Product Owners lack power, we cannot have empowered teams. Without empowered teams, we simply have teams using agile as a delivery framework rather than teams who can dynamically respond to the ever-changing needs of our users.

Behind ‘No’ is a complex dynamic of cultural and behavioural norms across traditional hierarchical fault lines. At the centre of empowering Product Owners is trust and compassion from organisational leaders. To support trust and compassion, there must be clear organisational statements of values, outcomes and expectations paired with openness and transparency between all concerned. It is not enough to simply install frameworks like Scrum into teams; there must be a commitment to creating these kinds of relationships and behaviours to fully leverage the benefits that agile ways of working promise. Simply put – organisational leadership must work on responding to a ‘no’ answer as a positive indicator that teams are really trying to live the agile values.

Product Owners can also use this small but potent word to convey subtlety and different meanings. Sometimes, a ‘No’ is a ‘Not now, but let’s talk about it later’. Other times, it might be ‘Why do you think x is more important than y?’ or ‘That’s not a problem our customers or users are talking about at the moment, can you help me see what you’re seeing?’ It might even be that the ‘No’ opens a conversation about some fundamental misalignments across the organisation. Good Product Owners will have a vision, roadmap and other artefacts which will make it easier to accept a ‘No’ answer. Great Product Owners can turn ‘No’ into a positive conversation starter that preserves the focus of a team while deepening the relationship between them and their stakeholders.

Talk to us to find out more about our Product Manager Practitioner course – helping you feel confident and empowered to say ‘No’.


It’s a short word that’s rarely even associated with agile at all, but it is the most important part of a Product Owners vocabulary – ‘No’.

Helen Angharad-Williams, Senior Agile Trainer

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