In theory, the product owner’s responsibilities are simple: The individual should maximise the value the product creates according to the Scrum Guide. But what does this mean in practice? In reality, the application of the product owner role varies greatly, as products and organisations differ. But my experience shows that there are two key factors that determine the duties of a product owner: the scope and the depth of ownership. This blog post discusses these two factors to help you apply the role successfully.
Ownership Scope: Product, Feature, or Component Owner?
To get the product owner responsibilities right, start by asking what the individual owns. Is it a product, a feature, or a component? While this may sound like a trivial question, it can be tricky to answer it: I have seen many companies where people did not have a shared understanding of what a product is. As a consequence, there was no clear and common definition of product roles and responsibilities. The following picture summarises the differences between the three terms.
Many product owners I have met weren’t product owners but feature owners or component owners. While there is nothing wrong at all with being a feature or component owner, the responsibilities significantly differ from a product owner:
A product owner in Scrum owns the entire product. Consequently, the individual should focus on making and keeping the product a success—by ensuring that it offers a strong value proposition to the customers and users and that it creates the desired business benefits.
A feature owner, in contrast, is focused on one or more individual features. The individual’s responsibility is to ensure that the features performs well, for example, that the drop-off number of the checkout feature is low. Similarly, a component owner looks after one or more component, such as, the user interface or data access layer. The person makes sure that the architectural element works as expected. To do so, the individual usually has to have the appropriate technical skills. The picture below illustrates the three different owner roles.
Using feature and component owners is a scaling technique: It can help you grow your product by dividing the product responsibilities. A common approach is to have one overall product owner who manages the entire product and several feature and component owners who look after its parts.
Ownership Depth: Big or Small Product Owner?
If you are a product owner in the sense discussed above, then that’s great. But to which extent to you own the product? Are you responsible for the tactical and strategic decisions, or do you focus on the tactics? Strategic responsibilities include deciding on the product strategy, developing the product roadmap, and managing the stakeholders; examples of tactical duties are managing the product backlog, writing user stories, and working with the development team
Individuals who own the strategic and the tactical decisions are sometimes referred to as “big” product owners. Product owners who focus on the tactics are called “small” product owners. Depending on the ownership depth, small and big product owners have different responsibilities, as the diagrams below show.
I view a small product owner as a partial product owner. Unfortunately, the definition of the role in Scrum—the framework that gave birth to it—is not entirely clear. While the Scrum Guide states maximising value of the product as a responsibility, it only lists tactical duties like managing the product backlog and working with the development team.
I find it not uncommon that small, tactical product owners work with a product manager or chief product owner who owns the strategic product decisions. This setup is usually chosen help grow the product—it’s another scaling technique. It tends to work well when the product is growing steadily or when it has become mature. But it is less suited for young products, which require a closer alignment of strategic and tactical decisions.