Thames Water blog lead
Katy Beale
Katy Beale Equal Experts Alumnus

Our Thinking Thu 8th October, 2020

Being a great digital product owner: the art of prioritisation and saying no

Find out what happened when we brought four experts together to discuss what it takes to be a great digital product owner with Thames Water staff 

As part of our digital transformation and product work with Thames Water, we’ve been helping them find the right narrative for talking about rapid delivery, building confidence in their team’s capabilities and creating the foundations needed to be a ‘digital first’ water company.  

We brought together a team of digital product experts for a panel discussion on how to be an effective product owner. It was an opportunity for Thames Water employees to hear how other organisations have embedded product owners into their way of working.

The group of specialists was composed of:

Matt Walker, Head of Product at Moneysupermarket and Equal Experts Associate

Darren Irish, Senior Product Owner at Three

Neha Datt, Product Consultant at Equal Experts, whose clients include PlayStation, Siemens Healthineers and various infrastructure companies

Julia Bellis, Product Consultant at Equal Experts, whose clients include UK passport application platform, Pret and Domino’s

The event was facilitated by Katy Beale, Comms and Content Consultant at Equal Experts and Amanda Kirby, Delivery Lead at Thames Water. 

We were very lucky to have four very experienced speakers who have worked across multiple sectors who bring valuable insight into embedding product owners and creating effective teams. 

The lively discussion started with the question, “What top three skills do you need to have to be a great digital product owner?”. Communication and people skills came through as essentials here. Matt mentioned the need for adaptability in the day to day; Neha said key strengths were needed in facilitation to listen, contextualise and support great team working; Julia pointed out that curiosity is a much needed key skill, as well as diplomacy; Darren said you needed to have trust and respect for team members to support and motivate.

The panel were asked about their experience of saying ‘no’ and why it is vital. Brilliantly, what came across from all the panellists was that it’s not about saying no. It’s learning how to say no, in a professional way, which is nearer to saying “Not now, not yet”. Being a great product owner is about prioritisation and expectation setting, based on user and business needs, and deciding the right thing to be working on at any given time.  

There was an inspiring debate about whether you are born with the personality to make you a great product owner or if you can learn the skills. Matt believes that not everyone can “just slot into a Product Owner role. I believe there are certain traits, for example a level of assertiveness and leadership that if you don’t have it’s potentially unfair on the individual”. Neha countered with, “I think assertiveness is more a skill than a trait. Some people might be more naturally inclined to do these default but anyone can learn these. The valuable point here is that if you aren’t naturally inclined towards being assertive your line managers need to support you with this adequately.”

Ultimately, being a great product owner comes from experience. All the panellists talked about the power in building relationships, in doing and learning on the job, and being open to a ‘learning culture’ of always improving.

As an invite-only event at Thames Water with attendees from across the organisation, we had product owners, potential POs and leadership on the call, who all gave great feedback:

“Fantastic session – thanks ever so much” Mike Potter, CTO

“As a new product owner, this was a really useful session – thank you speakers!” Vicki Smith, Product Owner


“Thanks for setting this up, really informative!” Tanya Jacques, Business Change and Transformation Project Manager


“Thanks, brilliant nuggets of experience” Denise Clifford, Product Owner

The attending audience also had some brilliant questions of their own about user research, remote working and experimentation. 

It was fantastic to share knowledge and bring experts together in this way. You could see perceptions shifting on the call and we’re pleased to say that there’s appetite to do future events on different themes. 

Zoom screen Thames Water