This chapter details the role of product owner, including a product owner's principal responsibilities and activities. It offers advice on who should fill the product owner role and how to scale the role for larger efforts.
The product owner is the empowered central point of product leadership. Every product owner needs to look in two directions at once: towards the stakeholders and towards the development team. On the one hand, the product owner acts as the voice of the stakeholders, ensuring the right solution is developed. On the other, the product owner must communicate to the development team what to build and the order in which to build it, while also verifying that the right thing has been built. For these reasons, the product owner is often considered part product manager, part business analyst, and part tester.
A Product Owner's Principal Responsibilities
The product owner role is a full-time role with significant responsibilities. Product owners must manage economics, participate in planning, groom the product backlog, define acceptance criteria and verify that they are met, and collaborate with the development team and the stakeholders.
- Manage Economics. Ensure that good economics decisions are continuously being made at the release, sprint and product backlog levels.
- Participate in Planning. The product owner is a key participant in planning activities at the portfolio, product, release, and sprint levels.
- Groom the Product Backlog. Ensure that product backlog items are continuously created, refined, estimated, and prioritized.
- Define and Verify Acceptance Criteria. Define the conditions under which the product owner would be satisfied that the functional and nonfunctional requirements have been met for each product backlog item.
- Collaborate with the Development Team. To enable fast, frequent feedback, the product owner is engaged and committed to working with the development team on a daily basis.
- Collaborate with the Stakeholders. The product owner works with the entire stakeholder community—both internal and external—to gather input and synthesize a coherent vision for the product.
A Product Owner's Characteristics & Skills
The critical characteristics of a product owner can be grouped into four categories: domain knowledge, people skills, decision-making ability, and accountability.
- Domain Knowledge. To be effective at vision creation and execution, a product owner must have appropriate business and domain knowledge.
- People Skills. A product owner must be a good communicator, negotiator, motivator, and consensus builder.
- Decision-making Ability. The product owner must be empowered to make significant and often difficult decisions. Without sufficient responsibility, the product owner becomes an impediment rather than an enabler.
- Accountability. The product owner is accountable for delivering good business results, for being available to the development team and the stakeholders, and for being a collaborative member of the Scrum team.
FulFilling the Role
Most non-Scrum organizations won't have a role called product owner. So when the company begins to work in agile or Scrum teams, the question many teams asks is, Who should be a product owner?
Who Should Be a Product Owner?
The product owner is a melding of authority and responsibilities that historically have been found in several traditional roles. In its most encompassing expression, a product owner incorporates elements of the roles of product manager, product marketer, project manager, business analyst, and acceptance tester.
Exactly who should be the product owner depends on the type of development effort and the specific organization.
- Internal Development. The product owner should represent the business area that will benefit from the solution.
- Commercial Development. The product owner should be able to act as a proxy for the actual customers and users (typically a product manager or marketer or a project manager).
- Outsourced Development. The product owner should be a representative from the company paying for the solution and receiving the benefits.
- Component Development. The product owner for this kind of architectural development project should be a technical person who understands how best to prioritize technical items.
For a discussion about which kind of role I'd personally choose on a Scrum team, see my blog post, “Which Scrum Role Do You Prefer?”
Product Owner Combined with Other Roles
It is sometimes possible to be a product owner for more than one team, preferably on the same development effort. I've also seen limited examples of successfully combining a development team member with a product owner. Teams should never combine the ScrumMaster role with the product owner role, however, because it creates a conflict of interest.
Product Owner Team
Should we allow a team of people to perform the product owner role? Not if by product owner team, we mean a group of people with shared decision making and accountability! To properly apply Scrum, we need one individual to be the product owner, making decisions and acting as the single voice of the stakeholder communities to the Scrum team.
Product owner teams do exist—but they exist to provide input and guidance to the product owner. They are not a decision-making committee or a substitute for an empowered product owner.
Some teams use Chief Product Owners for very large products. In those cases, a chief product owner is ultimately responsible for the entire product, but a team of product owners is responsible for individual features of that product. For this to work, the team-level product owners must be empowered to make most decisions without having to pass them up the hierarchy.
What about product owner proxies? Proxies can work in limited situations; for example, when the product owner is often meeting with customers and users outside the office and is typically unavailable on a day-to-day basis. In those cases, a product owner might empower someone to make tactical decisions. For this to work, though, the product owner must actually empower the proxy to make the decisions, and not second guess or overrule the decisions. The product owner must also remember that the ultimately the responsibility for ensuring the work gets done falls to the product owner alone.
This chapter examined the product owner role, emphasizing the product owner as the empowered central point of product leadership. Innolution offers training specific to the product owner role, including the Certified Scrum Product Owner certification course. Find the product owner training you need here. The next chapter will focus on the ScrumMaster role.