The Role of Product Owners in Scrum

Demystifying the Product Owner

RomanPichler
Demystifying-the-Product-Owner

Roman Pichler discusses the role of the product owner in Scrum.

This article discusses the role of the product owner in Scrum.
The role has attracted plenty of interest and controversy. Some
people believe it rebrands the traditional product manager. Others
think it is a team lead role or Scrum’s take on the project
manager. None of theses views are completely true, but there is
some truth in them.

In a nutshell, the product owner is responsible for the success
of the product. This usually requires the product owner to lead
product discovery, to help identify and describe requirements, and
to ensure that the product backlog is ready for the next sprint
planning meeting. It also means that the product owner has to
engage in product planning, visioning and product road mapping,
decide what functionality is provided by a release, carry out
release planning, and answer questions from the team, review work
results, and collaborate with customers, users and other
stakeholders.

“The Product Owner’s focus is on return on investment (ROI),”
writes Ken Schwaber in his book Agile Project Management with Scrum
(2004, 18). If we follow this advice, then product owners will have
to look after products over an extended period of time – at least
until the ROI can be determined – if not after the product’s entire
lifecycle. Having one person in charge from bringing a new product
to life, to discontinuing the product has many benefits; it creates
continuity and eliminates wasteful handoffs, delays and
defects.

Many Facets

The different responsibilities make the product owner a
challenging and multi-faceted role that shares some of the
responsibilities traditionally attributed to a product marketer,
product manager and project manager. But make no mistake: As
tempting as it may be to compare the product owner to traditional
roles, it’s fundamentally flawed. The product owner is a genuinely
new role that cuts across existing job and department
boundaries.

The specific shape of the role is context-sensitive: It depends
on the nature of the product, the stage of the product lifecycle,
and the size of the project, among other factors. For example, the
product owner responsible for a new product consisting of software,
hardware, and mechanics will need different competencies than
someone who is leading the effort to enhance a web application.
Similarly, a product owner working with a large Scrum project will
require different skills than one collaborating with only one or
two teams.

Collaboration

Being the product owner is no solo act. As a member of the Scrum
team, the product owner closely works with the ScrumMaster and the
team. But the individual also collaborates with the customers,
users and other stakeholders thereby bridging the gap between the
market and development.

The product owner needs the support from the other Scrum team
members, for instance, to discover, describe, prioritise and detail
product backlog items. Otherwise, the individual will end up being
overworked, and the knowledge, creativity, and experience of the
ScrumMaster and the team are wasted.

Finding the Right Individual

For commercial products, the product owner is typically a
customer representative, such as a product manager or marketer. An
actual customer tends to assume the role when the product is being
developed for a specific organisation, for instance, an external
client who requires a new data warehouse solution or an internal
client like the marketing department asking for a web site update.
I have worked with customers, users, business line managers,
product managers, project managers, business analysts, and
architects who filled the product owner role well in the given
circumstances. Even CEOs can make great product owners.

I often get asked what characteristics a product owner should
exhibit. Even though the answer depends on the context, the
successful product owners I have worked with share the attributes
discussed below. As transitioning into the product owner role is a
learning process for the individual and the organisation, playing
the role effectively may require patience and perseverance.

Visionary and Doer

The product owner is a visionary who can envision the final
product and communicate the vision. But the product owner is also a
doer who sees the vision through to completion. This includes
describing requirements, closely collaborating with the team,
accepting or rejecting work results, and steering the project by
tracking and forecasting its progress. As an entrepreneur, the
product owner facilitates creativity; encourages innovation; and is
comfortable with change, ambiguity, debate, conflict, playfulness,
experimentation, and informed risk taking.

Leader and Team Player

As the individual responsible for the product’s success, the
product owner provides guidance and direction for everyone involved
in the development effort and ensures that tough decisions are
made. For instance, should the launch date be postponed or should
less functionality be delivered?

At the same time, the product owner must be a team player who
relies on close collaboration with the other Scrum team members,
yet has no formal authority over them. You can think of the product
owner as primus inter pares, first among peers, regarding the
product.

Communicator and Negotiator

The product owner must be an effective communicator and
negotiator. The individual communicates with and aligns different
parties, including customers, users, development and engineering,
marketing, sales, service, operations, and management. The product
owner is the voice of the customer, communicating customer needs
and requirements connecting “the suits” with “the techies.”
Sometimes this means saying no and other times negotiating a
compromise.

Empowered and Committed

The product owner must have enough authority and the right level
of management sponsorship to lead the development effort and to
align stakeholders. An empowered product owner is essential for
leading the effort to create a great product. The product owner
must have the proper decision-making authority— from finding the
right team members to deciding which functionality is delivered as
part of the release. The individual must be someone who can be
entrusted with a budget and at the same time has the ability to
create a work environment that fosters creativity and innovation.
Finally, the product owner must be committed to the development
effort.

Available and Qualified

The product owner must be available and qualified to do a great
job. Being the product owner is usually a full-time job. It is
important to give product owners enough time to sustainably carry
out their responsibilities. If the individual is overworked, the
project’s progress suffers and the resulting product may be
suboptimal. Being adequately qualified usually requires an intimate
understanding of the customer and the market, being passionate
about the user experience, and the ability to communicate needs and
describe requirements, to manage a budget, to guide a development
project, and to be comfortable working with a cross-functional,
self-organising team.

Summary

The product owner is a fascinating and challenging role. It
plays a key part in creating great products with Scrum, and it is
the cornerstone of establishing Scrum in the enterprise. “Until
recently, I viewed this relationship [between product management
and development] as one of many changes in a Scrum adoption. I now
view it as the most critical change, the lynchpin of the adoption.
If this change is successful, the use of Scrum will persist and
benefits will increase. If the change isn’t successful, the use of
Scrum in your enterprise might well unravel,” writes Ken Schwaber
in his book Scrum and the Enterprise (2007, 85). Given that the
product owner is a genuinely new role, it is not surprising that
playing it can be challenging. But it is well worth the effort.

Want more Agile info? Be sure to check out the Agile Day
at JAX London
, moderated by Roman Pichler.

Author
RomanPichler
Roman Pichler helps companies create great products by providing consulting, coaching and training in agile product management and Scrum. Roman has ten years experience in helping companies embrace agile methods, and a long track record in teaching and coaching product owners and product managers, business analysts, ScrumMasters, managers, and teams. He is the author of several books on Scrum including
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