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Business Analysis: Superpowers for the Product Owner-EN

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Ali Cox

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Definition of Superpower: Exaggerated or out-of-the-ordinary abilities such as super strength, super speed, telekinesis, or flight.

This definition of superpower is great if you’re talking about superheroes, but what does it mean to be a product owner with superpowers? The best product owners have a secret weapon hiding under their capes: business analysis skills.

What makes a great product owner and what does business analysis have to do with it? Read on to find out.

Characteristics of a Great Product Owner

While researching and developing our class, Product Owner Fundamentals for Business Value, I read a blog post that my colleague Alfred wrote, Is the Product Owner a Business Analyst?. In this post, he discusses the Product Owner and characterizes this person as the “voice of the client”, the person responsible for managing the scope of the product and being the decision maker. He goes on to list the following characteristics as essential to carrying out the role:

  • Knowledgeable about the business
  • Effective communicator
  • Able to analyze and integrate the opinions of different stakeholders
  • Empowered for making decisions
  • Clear about the vision of the product
  • Able to define requirements and user stories
  • Able to define “a successful result”
  • Available for the development team

Not so coincidentally, many of these same characteristics are just as important to those who perform good business analysis. With role definitions becoming more and more fuzzy than ever, individual team members fill multiple roles as well as share responsibilities. In many cases, the Product Owner is the de facto Business Analyst and needs business analysis know-how in order to best support project success.

Fortunately, organizations such as the IIBA and PMI provide solid guidance on the “how to” behind business analysis competencies such as establishing business knowledge, clarifying product vision, integrating diverse opinions, defining requirements and success criteria, and communicating effectively with the project team and key stakeholders. However, the breadth and depth of the role can sometimes be overwhelming so I’ve distilled this know-how into a shortlist of superpowers that will prove useful to any Product Owner.

Business Analysis Superpowers

Superpower #1: The Power of Establishing the “Why”

Establishing the Why is foundational to good business analysis and overall project (and organizational) success. Too often, we “solution” and jump to the “What” and “How” without understanding exactly Why we’re doing anything in the first place. By understanding the Why, we work to clarify the problem we are trying to solve, the root causes of that problem, and the outcomes our solution must achieve. This analysis points us in the right direction for all the work to come.

To determine the why, we must define the real business need. In addition, we must understand the organization we are supporting by considering what the business exists to do, the context within the business operates, and how the business works in terms of core processes. This allows us to develop a vision for the product that meets the need and aligns with the raison d’être (reason for being) of the organization.

According to Deloitte’s 2016-2017 CIO Survey, 78% of CIOs surveyed considered the organizational capability of Strategic Alignment essential to their success.

Product Owners are the ideal candidate to wield this superpower. They are often regarded as the “keeper” of the product vision and advocate for the customer. Their keen understanding of the business combined with a close relationship to the customer means they are in a unique position to ensure the proposed solution aligns with the real need, strategy, and capabilities of the business.

One business analysis tool that can be helpful in establishing the why is a Statement of Purpose. A Statement of Purpose typically includes a problem statement, the business objectives, and high-level approach to address the problem and meet the objectives. Other tools include the Project Charter and even the Business Case document, depending on when and how each are created in your organization.

No matter how you establish the why, taking time to think about and document the problem and what the solution must achieve will be an invaluable resource to steer the team in the right direction as the project progresses.

Superpower #2: The Power of Asking Questions

Did you know that a 4-year-old asks an average of 400 questions a day?

Although we probably don’t need to ask hundreds of questions each day on our projects, we should channel our inner 4-year-old more often at work by asking more questions. Too often, we assume we know something based on our prior knowledge or take the information we’re given at face value. The reality is that people rarely mean exactly what they say or give us enough information to make an effective decision. Good business analysis involves “digging beneath the surface” to understand a need or requirement. Consider this example:

Even though the person asked for their cake to be decorated with “Olympics Rings”, you and I both know the above result was probably not what they had in mind. A well-worded question or two could have easily clarified what they actually needed.

As a Product Owner, the power of asking questions is a useful force to effectively define requirements and user stories as well as identify the real needs and interests of diverse stakeholders. The power can also be turned inward to question your own ideas and biases about real customer challenges and the “must haves” of your product.

Our team of instructors intentionally uses the term “requirements elicitation” instead of requirements gathering to imply the effort and skill involved in getting the information and insight necessary to discover the true requirements of stakeholders. The elicitation techniques we teach are driven by questions; as analysts, we frame our elicitation plan and selection of tools by the questions we need to answer. To help you get started, we created a checklist of critical questions to ask about processes, data, and business rules to jump start a thorough analysis effort: Ask the Right Questions.

Superpower #3: A Magical, Bottomless Toolbox

Often, organizations or individuals tend to use the same techniques over and over, regardless of whether they best support the goal at hand. However, different situations, information, and stakeholders require different techniques. By familiarizing yourself with different ways of eliciting, analyzing, and documenting information, you have a much better chance of having the right tool for a given situation at your disposal. As Bruce Lee used to say: “Kick when you should kick, punch when you should punch.”

One illustrative example involves surveys. Many companies use them exclusively to identify requirements on projects because they are cost-effective, quick to administer, and good for gathering input from many individuals. Yet, surveys pose certain challenges. There are limits to the number of questions you can ask and expect a coherent response. Their success is dependent on asking the right questions written well (clear, neutral, and concrete). The surveyor has a limited ability to clarify a question or answer, probe for more detail on a response, refocus the respondent, or accept information that does not fit into the questions and format.

Imagine for a moment how the information we receive changes if we select a different tool, such as an interview? Or a focus group? Or a job observation? Simply by expanding our repertoire of tools, we gain more flexibility to match the tool to the situation and desired outcome.

A universe of tools exists to help you elicit, document, or analyze requirements. Why write something up in a lengthy paragraph when you can simplify it by organizing it into a table or a structured diagram? What tool you select can help avoid issues or even create more. For example, a facilitated workshop to define a new process could build relationships and consensus across diverse stakeholder groups. Compare this to a more conflict-promoting approach such as interviewing individuals one-on-one then sending a survey to select just a few priorities from everyone’s input on their “must haves”.

As a Product Owner, a magical, bottomless toolbox can transform you into a communication superhero. Are you convinced yet? If so, consider signing up for our Essential Skills for Business Analysis course, where we cover over 25 elicitation and business analysis techniques.

Superpower #4: The Power of “Just Enough”

The two most common objections to using business analysis techniques sound a little like the following:

“This is great and all, but we don’t have the time/money/resources to dedicate to this work.”

“We’re Agile – we don’t need documentation!”

The first objection equates business analysis as a gigantic pile of documentation produced by hundreds of hours of effort. The second falls on the complete other side of the spectrum, dismissing the value of documentation or process other than is prescribed by scrum or other agile methodologies.

The work of business analysis doesn’t have to culminate in a dissertation-like effort. On the other side, the organization would benefit from something rather than nothing. We don’t have perfect memories, so we often forget key information about identified processes and use cases or why we made a particular decision. Enter the power of “just enough”.

I define “just enough” for documentation at the beginning of the project. This decision is based on a few considerations, such as:

  • size, complexity, and risk of the project
  • legal and regulatory responsibilities
  • characteristics of the stakeholders involved
  • tools available and effort to maintain
  • etc.

Just like a solution MVP (Minimum Viable Product), I determine MVD (Minimum Viable Documentation)! The goal is to determine an adequate amount for the project, not one word more or one word less. If a picture of your white board is sufficient to capture your analysis, go with that.

Documentation doesn’t need to be recorded in fancy tools or particularly formal. Each team needs to have a serious conversation about what’s just enough to meet the needs of its members and project, and what skills and resources are available on the team to do it. The Product Owner is in a great position to help establish the MVD and provide guidance around what is needed.

Bottom line, we need good business analysis and documentation for our organizations and doing something is better than doing nothing. (I harp on this a little more in my Just Enough Doesn’t Mean None! The Agile Business Analyst Role blog post.)

Superpowers for justice… or maybe just better decision making

The business analysis superpowers we discussed in this post – establishing the why, asking questions, learning analysis tools, and identifying just enough – combine to ensure our work creates value for the customer and business.

Why do Product Owners need business analysis skills? The simple answer is to make better decisions.

  • Establishing the Why points us in the right direction and ensures we understand the purpose behind the work we do and what our solution must achieve to be successful.
  • Asking questions and expanding our toolbox improve the information we learn during the course of the project.
  • And doing “just enough” analysis ensures we execute our work effectively and efficiently and in a way that is appropriate for the project and the organization.

If you need help establishing your inner superhero, consider signing up for our Product Owner Fundamentals for Business Value or Essential Skills for Business Analysis course.

– Ali

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Sobre el autor

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Ali Cox

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