What does a Product Owner do and who should fulfil this role?

What does a Product Owner do? Is it a full time job? Are they the customer? Do they need to be from business? Are they the “owner” of the product?

It’s been over 15 years since the Agile Manifesto was signed and a new era heralded with a focus on working products over (but not to the exclusion of) documentation. Schwaber and Sutherland, though, collectively presented Scrum at the OOPSLA 1995 conference, from which emerged the role of the Product Owner.

What is a Product Owner?

Originally modelled on the Chief Engineer at Toyota, the Product Owner is one of three roles in Scrum, the other two being the Development Team and the Scrum Master. This is a serious role with vision, budget and delivery responsibilities. 

Some people confuse this role with the role of the “customer” in the Agile Manifesto when it says:

“customer collaboration over contract negotiation”.

Others also confuse the Product Owner role in Scrum with the “business” in the principles of the Agile Manifesto:

“Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

What does a Product Owner do?

In the latest version of the Scrum Guide (2017), Schwaber and Sutherland state the Product Owner’s day-to-day responsibilities as:

  • Maximising the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team.
  • Managing the Product Backlog.
  • Managing the budget.
  • Owning the vision and direction of the product.

What does managing the Product Backlog involve?

  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions.
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next.
  • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

That’s not to say, though, that the Product Owner does all these things themselves. It just means that they make sure it happens.

A full-time or part-time role?

Watch out for the proxy Product Owner anti-pattern

Many organisations who start their agile journey insist on having a business person as the Product Owner of the team. They become a part-time Product Owner and tend not to see themselves as a member of the Scrum Team. This tends to happen when very senior people high up the corporate hierarchy with significant existing responsibilities are made Product Owner of software teams. Unfortunately, their day job in the business tends to trump the priorities of being part of a Scrum Team, and so while the decision-making responsibilities remain, the other work of the Product Owner is delegated to someone else. When the role delegated in this way, delays in decision making emerge. Identifying priorities involve pushing decisions up and down the organisational hierarchy that delay the delivery of value.

Delegation to the Development Team is key to being effective

The most effective Product Owners delegate action to their Development Team and draw on their Scrum Master to support internal stakeholder engagement on agile ways of working. This enables them to focus on crafting a pathway to realise their vision. This is where they can add the most value and it promotes self-organisation and ownership of product development within the Development Team.

What do the gurus say a Product Owner does?

Esther Darby

  • Close collaboration with the customer
  • Serve as the customer(s) proxy
  • Single voice of direction for the team
  • Help the team understand the customer and the context
  • Work with the Development Team to refine the Product Backlog
  • Be involved in continuous improvement with the team [1]

Roman Pilcher

  • Create value for customers and users
  • Should have strategic product management skills, such as product strategy and road mapping, as well as tactical ones, including product backlog management [2]

Mike Cohn

The Product Owner does not get to say,

“We have four Sprints left, therefore you must do one-fourth of the Product Backlog this Sprint” [3]

The Scrum Product Owner’s job is to motivate the team with a clear, elevating vision.
The Development Team members know best what they are capable of, and so they select which Stories from the top of the Product Backlog they can deliver during any Sprint.

Jeff Patton

Rather than a focus on developing software, Jeff Patton suggests a slightly different focus for Product Owners.

“Our job is not to develop software, our job is to change the world”

Conclusions: Where is a Product Owner’s focus?

If a Product Owner only represents “the business”, they miss out on the bigger picture.

There are nearly always numerous products, parts of products, features — a whole ecosystem of pieces that customers interact with. A Product Owner must own the vision, work with others, and balance many perspectives, in order to truly deliver value.


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