Demystifying the Product Owner Role

Published on 18th January 2010 2 min read

The product owner role in Scrum has attracted plenty of interest and controversy. Some people believe it rebrands the traditional product manager. Others think it is a team lead or Scrum’s take on the project manager role. And some say the product owner is a helper role, a product backlog item writer so to speak. None of theses views is true. But each has some truth in it. This post attempts to demystify this important role.

The Role Defined

Let’s have a look at what Ken Schwaber, the co-founder of Scrum, writes about the product owner in the Scrum Guide (May 2009 edition) :

The Product Owner is the one and only person responsible for managing the Product Backlog and ensuring the value of the work the team performs. This person maintains the Product Backlog and ensures that it is visible to everyone.

This definition sounds rather harmless until we consider its implications. It 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, decides what goes into a release, carries out release planning, provides feedback to the team and reviews work results, and manages customers, users and other stakeholders. And Ken Schwaber recommends in his book Agile Project Management with Scrum on p. 18:

The Product Owner’s focus is on return on investment (ROI).

If we take this advice seriously, then product owners will have to look after products over an extended period of time – at least until 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 also creates continuity and eliminates wasteful handoffs.

A Complex, Multi-faceted Role

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. 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.

Filling the Role

Who should play the product owner role? For commercial products, the product owner is typically a product manager or marketer. An actual customer tends to assume the role when a bespoke product is being developed, for instance, an external client who requires a new data warehouse solution or an internal client (e.g., 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.

No Solo Act but Teamwork

Being the product owner is no solo act. The product owner is part of the Scrum team and closely collaborates with its other members. While the ScrumMaster and team support the product owner by jointly grooming the product backlog, the product owner is responsible for making sure that the necessary work is carried out. The product owner needs the support from the other Scrum team members. Otherwise, the individual will end up being overworked and will miss out on the knowledge, creativity, and experience of the ScrumMaster and the team.

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  • Terry Eaton says:

    In your experience, how do organizations fare that have an absentee product owner with business analysts serving as both team members and product owner proxies vs. teams with a more traditional structure?

    In you opinion, could the product owner role really be shared amongst a group of people effectively?

  • Mike Cohn says:

    Thanks for clarifying the nature of the product owner role. I’ve seen a number of articles lately that have tried to downgrade the product owner to merely the product backlog author. I was glad to you dispel this myth.

  • Hi Terry,

    Thanks for your comment. I view a proxy product owner as a product owner anti-pattern or pitfall. There should one person in Scrum who decides about the product and who works with the team. In the scenario you describe, I would investigate if it makes sense to promote the BA to the actual product owner (which means the individual now prioritises the product backlog, plans the release and integrates the stakeholders, for instance). If that’s not the right way forward, explore what it would take to allow the actual product owner collaborate with the team during the sprint. I am aware that removing proxies can take some time and may require organisational change. But that’s the beauty of Scrum: It presents organisations with the opportunity to develop an grow.

    Now regarding the second part of your comment, I don’t see the product owner role distributed across multiple people. There is always one product owner in Scrum. (Even when multiple product owners have to collaborate on a large Scrum project, there is still an overall product owner called the chief product owner.) What I was trying to say is that product ownership is teamwork. Product owner, ScrumMaster and team groom the product backlog together, and the product owner usually ask the other Scrum team members and often stakeholders for input to create a forecast for the reminder of the project, for instance. The old mentality of “here is product management” and “there is development” should no longer exists in Scrum.

  • Hi Mike, Thanks for the comment. I find it interesting too that some people try to split the product owner role, often into a strategic and a tactical part or “agile product manager” and (technical) “product owner”. I guess it makes the application of agile product management practices easier but it damages the role — much of the power of having one person in charge is lost.

  • I never thought of a customer proxy being an anti-pattern before because it is so common on many of the teams I’ve coached. I really like the idea, and your thoughts about removing the customer proxy. Something for me to ponder.

  • Joanne Poplak says:

    Are you saying that there is no place for the traditional Business Analyst in an Agile/Scrum team? Do they need to adapt to become a business specialist and be able to play the product owner or scrum master role?

    • Hi Joanne, I’ve seen business analysts work on the team, and I have seen business analysts play the product owner role. Th right choice depends on the product, the project, and the individual. I’ve found that highly specialised roles tend to get broadened in Scrum. If you work as a BA on the team, you are likely to help your fellow team members and the product owner decompose and refine requirements. Over time, you may also help with architecture and design, testing or the documentation (depending on your expertise).

  • Geoff Watts says:

    As you mention, it is really important for teams (and organisations) to think about who is playing the role of the Product Owner as it much such a massive difference to whether a project or product is successful and also to the degree of success.

    That is a nice summary and another thing that I particularly like is that you mention the Product Owner should expect some help from the ScrumMaster and team. It’s a hard role and one they can’t do on their own

    P.S. I like the new website layout too!

  • seamless integration of the blog indeed, great!

    Product Owner (or Product Champion, as Mary calls the role with a different flavor) needs domain and social skills depending on the context. Basically he/she must have excellent listening capabilities to combine and order all the discovered user stories from the stakeholders involved: consumers of product, business analysts/team members looking at the detailed business processes to be modeled, teams/coaches aiming at growing a sustainable product development environment or enterprise. Yes, the jointly agreed order in backlog will serve to maximize ROI, however if in rare cases agreement cannot be achieved someone usually has a mandate to decide (in everyone’s interest) …

    • Hi Thoralf, Thanks for your comment. I agree that a product owner should be decisive and not afraid of making the necessary decisions if no consensus can be achieved. I recommend in my book Agile Product Management with Scrum that the product owner should be a leader and team player, and write: “By no means should the product owner dictate decisions, yet at the same time neither should the product owner be indecisive or employ a laissez-faire management style. Instead, the individual should act as a shepherd for the innovation process, guiding the project and seeking team consensus in the decision-making process.” I know it’s a hard line to toe. We want the product owner to champion the product and be the person primarily responsible for the product success. At the same time, we’d like to encourage teamwork and see the product owner act as a true member of the Scrum team.

  • my current stakeholder picture: product champion owns the sustainable vision (product business value, vendor ROI) and marketing champion serves customer relations (market business value, customer ROI). The closer and more trusted the context, the higher the overlap in cooperative spirit between product and (variety of different) customer teams, thus product owner can ideally be one single person.

    • Hi Thoralf, The product owner in Scrum is responsible for strategic, outward-facing product management aspects (market and customers) as well as responsible for the tactical, inward-facing ones (working with the development team and internal stakeholders). Putting ONE person in charge who owns the entire value stream unites authority and responsibility; waste such as handoffs, loss of information, waiting and delays, and defects are avoided. I view splitting the product owner role and distributing its responsibilities across several people as an anti-pattern (which I call “partial product owner”). I am planning to write about product owner pitfalls in one of my next posts.

  • I enjoyed reading your post above. I hope you keep your site running, often the sites I find and enjoy seem to run out of steam and then grind to a halt.Keep up the good work!

  • Paul Goddard says:

    This is great advice for those people thinking the product owner role is going to be an easy, part time hobby!!

    It’s a tough job. But I’ve seen Scrum teams respond so well to having a well educated and informed product owner who can help us understand what our customers need. And be part of the team which actually delivers that stuff too!! What more could you ask for!!

  • Julie K says:

    I’m going to 2nd interview for a role as product champion. Any tips on how to sell myself into this role?

  • NewAgiler says:

    I am totally new to Scrum/Agile and currently working at a company who is transfeing to Agile completely. I am a free-lancer and do not get any on job trainings so the whole product owner role is very overwhelming…can you guide to a very basic initial step I should take to overcome my ignorance…I have been reading and catching up with some information on entering stories and prioritiziing them, but other than that I am a little lost in the Agile world…
    Thanks in advance for your guidance…

  • MRR says:

    Do you have any thoughts on part-time engineer/part-time product owner? Thanks.

  • Hi Mitchell,

    Thanks for your question. As long as the individual can fulfil the product owner responsibilities and do a good job of an engineer/team member, then playing both roles is fine. That’s probably only feasible for small tech products. In most cases, being an effective product owner requires some specialisation and focus. What’s more, it’s often a full-time job in my experience.

    Does this help?

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