The product owner is a product management role that emerged in Scrum in the late 1990ies. But many organisations still struggle to effectively apply it. In this article, I offer an overview of the role including its authority and responsibility.
Authority and Responsibility
A product owner in Scrum is responsible for maximising the value a product creates. The role has to ensure that the product offers the desired value to the users and the customers, as well as to the company that develops and provides it.
To fulfil this responsibility, a product owner has to be empowered to own a product in its entirety—to make the necessary tactical and strategic product decisions. In other words, a Scrum product owner has to have the final say on the key decisions, from setting the product vision and determining the product strategy to developing the product roadmap and prioritising the product backlog.
In practice, however, Scrum product owners are not always sufficiently empowered. A widespread misunderstanding is that they should focus on delivery and execution, write user stories, and ensure that a development team does a good job. But it is impossible to take responsibility for the value a product creates without having the authority to make the necessary strategic decisions.
It’s worthwhile to note that there is another product owner role, the SAFe product owner. This role is focused on the tactics and does not have full ownership of a product. While both roles are called product owner, they differ significantly and have little in common. It’s therefore important to clearly distinguish them, as I explain in the article Six Types of “Product” Owners.
Here is a list of six common tasks that help a product owner maximise the value of their product:
- Carry out (continuous) discovery and strategizing work. This includes connecting with users and customers; performing competitive analysis; and monitoring market trends.
- Create and update product plans like a product strategy and a product roadmap.
- Update, prioritise, and refine the product backlog. Break larger product backlog items into smaller ones so that they are ready for the next sprint.
- Attend meetings including product strategy review meetings as well as sprint planning, sprint review, and sprint retrospective meetings.
- Collect and evaluate feedback and data on the latest product increment and measure the product performance using the right key performance indicators (KPIs).
A common mistake I see Scrum product owners make is to neglect the discovery and strategy work—sometimes because they are not empowered to take care of them, but often, because these tasks are not as urgent as breaking epics into more detailed user stories to keep the team moving forward.
But if you deprioritise the strategic work, you might overlook a market development, get caught out by a competitor, and find yourself struggling to catch up. I therefore recommend that as a rule of thumb, you spend at least half-a-day per week on product discovery and strategy-related tasks, be it interviewing users, reviewing the latest performance data, or monitoring the competition.
You might be wondering how a single Scrum product owner can carry out all the tasks I mentioned, and how the individual is able to make the right product decisions. The answer is: by collaborating with the right people—the key stakeholders, one or more development teams, a Scrum Master, and possibly other product people in case if the product is too big to be successfully managed by a single product owner.
The key stakeholders are those individuals that have an interest in the product and whose contributions are required to provide the product. For a commercial product, a key stakeholder might be a marketer, sales rep, and customer service team member.
A development team in Scrum is a cross-functional, self-managing group with up to nine members. For end user-facing products, the team usually consists of UX/UI designers, architects, programmers, testers, and other roles that are required to design, develop, test, document, and deploy product increments.
I find it helpful to involve the key stakeholders and at least some development team members in the discovery and strategizing work. For instance, invite the individuals to quarterly strategy reviews where you inspect and adapt the product strategy and roadmap. Additionally, ask the stakeholders to regularly attend the sprint review meetings, at least once every month, as a rule of thumb.
Carry out the product backlog work together with the development team members. This includes updating and prioritising the backlog and breaking larger items into smaller ones. Some development teams are even happy to carry out part of the refinement work on their own.
Finally, let the Scrum Master take care of process and organisational issues so that you can focus on managing the product, as the Scrum product owner.
Common artefacts a product owner creates and updates include the following:
- Product vision and product strategy
- Product roadmap
- Business model and financial forecast/business case
- Personas or other user models
- Product goal
- Product backlog
In order to succeed, Scrum product owners require the right skillset: leadership, strategic, and tactical skills, as the following picture illustrates.
Leadership skills include empathy, vision, active listening, decision-making, stakeholder management, and product ethics; strategic skills include product strategy and product roadmap, business model and financial forecast, KPIs, market research and validation, and product discovery; tactical skills, finally, include product backlog prioritisation and management, personas, user stories, product validation techniques, and technical understanding.
Acquiring these skills takes time, dedication, and a supportive management. But without the right skills, it will be difficult to maximise the value a product creates.