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.