Issue 29

Ancient Advices for a Product Owner – “Sun Tzu’s Art of War”

Liviu Ştefăniţă Baiu
Senior Business Consultant


One of the oldest military treatises and one of the most successful is "Sun Tzu's Art of War". The book was written around 500 BC by a general from the court of King of Wu, and presents a set of 13 chapters with precepts about tactics and strategies in warfare.

I've read the book for the first time some years ago, but looking at some trends in the communication techniques and management style determined me to read it again.

And here I am, trying to write about some ancient advices for a modern position, the Product Owner one.


As we all know, Product Owner is a role specific to the Agile SCRUM. In this role there can be only one person, responsible for:

A simple word switching - if we replace "product backlog item" with "order" we'll have something like:

Going further with the word change, we can replace "Scrum Team" with "army" we will have the following responsibilities:

This is an interesting transformation - which leads to the following questions:

  1. Is the PO a commander of an army?
  2. Is "Sun Tzu's Art of War" a guidebook for a PO?

If someone asks me, the answer is YES to both questions. And here's why:

Product Owner - Commander of the Army

I will try to present the arguments for considering a Product Owner the "Commander of the Army".

The role of a Product Owner is to bring life to a vision of a product, a clear goal by defining small and clear requirements in a priority order, which have value in themselves, grouped in small iterations, each iteration with a clear deliverable. The key concepts are Clear, Goal and Requirements, Priority, Iteration, and Deliverable.

The Product Owner is the sole person responsible of passing on his vision to the Team, and constantly making sure that there is a common understanding about the product amongst the stakeholders and the Team. A project is successful if the Product Owner manages to keep the people involved to be constantly focused on the product's vision and delivering the most valuable features of it.

The Product Owner is also responsible to constantly adjust the product backlog to the changes that occur in the market (where the product will be placed), in the consumer behavior, in the technologies used. He must be able to prioritize the backlog items so that the product is delivered as soon as possible.

Also, the Product Owner should be dedicated to ensuring the team has an appropriate work environment, thus creating the conditions that facilitate the delivery. This is an indirect responsibility shared with the Scrum Master and refers mainly to the alignment of the Scrum Team with the wider organizational environment and processes.

All the above should be aligned with the delivery of the product in the most cost efficient manner. The Product Owner should always compare the value that the product features bring with the costs that the feature delivery involves. Actually this is one of the most important KPI, which influences the priority of any feature and also the project maturity and success (if all the important features are delivered and the product is mature, while the cost is lower than the initial estimates, then the project is a success).

In Sun Tzu's Art of War a general is responsible for achieving victory (Goal and Deliverable). This can be achieved through a Clear battle plan, maintaining the army's morale and dedication, having a good logistics for the army, quality supplies, discipline and clear communication.

The general is the only responsible for achieving victory. He is the only one who can give the orders (Requirements) and also the only one who can decide the army's moves and steps (Priority and Iterations). Sun Tzu presents in detail the "factors" that should be taken into account when a general lays his battle plans:

All of the above apply also to modern days Product Owner which has responsibilities to the team, as well as to the organization that will benefit from the product.

Of course, none of the factors applies in the exact manner that is presented by Sun Tzu, but if the reader of his book makes an effort and widen the meaning of the concepts and definitions of Sun Tzu, he will reach to terms like “Leadership”, “Market conditions & trends”, “Consumer behavior”, “Methodology”, “Processes”, which definitely sound more familiar. And one more (very important for me) is the clarity and transparency, in other words sincerity, that must be present both for the Product Owner, as well as for a general.

Art of War - a guidebook for the Product Owner

Let’s remember the second question from above: “Is ‘Sun Tzu's Art of War’ a guidebook for a PO?” and my answer - Yes.

Sun Tzu did more in his book than to define the general’s role and responsibilities; he also offered details about how to define a victory, what are the strategies and tactics, how to make the best use from different resources and military branches. Along with these he presented the importance of intelligence for an army, and its role in adjusting its own strategy to the enemy’s, the ability to adjust, to change, that is.

The general must be able to maximize the effect of his moves by constantly minimizing the costs. And for this, he receives advice referring to the cost of army food that the state must support when the campaign stalls, the time that various branches of his army spend on marches and how to make that more efficient (somehow like measuring the velocity of a team and how to improve it).

But the most important argument for my answer is the fact that a general must be able to identify, measure, and evaluate the changes that occur in the war theater and respond quickly to these changes, by adjusting the initial plans.

The constant evaluation of the external conditions (the enemy) is described by Sun Tzu:

“10. Therefore in laying plans compare the following elements, appraising them with the utmost care.

  1. If you say which ruler possesses moral influence, which commander is the most able, which army obtains the advantages of nature and the terrain, in which [army] regulations and instructions are better carried out, which troops are the stronger,

  2. Which [army] has the better trained officers and men;

  3. And which administers rewards and punishments in a more enlightened manner;

  4. I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated.”

Nowadays the Product Owner should be in contact with the market where the product will be launched, dedicated to the methodology used, monitoring the processes, and constantly informed about the team’s morale and work environment. He also needs to communicate constantly with the team and the stakeholders so that both sides are in a good shape and happy with the work that is being done and with the deliverable.

I think that the arguments above convinced you to try and find out more about Sun Tzu’s book and about the role of the Product Owner.



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