The Role of Product Owners in Scrum
Demystifying the Product Owner
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.
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.
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.
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.