If you grew up as a teenager in the 1980s like me, you are probably familiar with the quote “There can only be one” from the first Highlander movie. Interestingly, this statement is also true for product owners: There should only be one product owner per product. But don’t worry: You don’t have to become an immortal warrior to understand the Highlander principle. Reading this blog post will do the trick.
Can there be many?
Traditionally, product ownership tends to be distributed across several individuals: A product marketer, for instance, writes a product concept or market requirements specification, and a product manager turns it into a product requirements specification. A project manger is then tasked with executing the project, and works with a business analyst, requirements engineer, or architect to analyse and refine the requirements.
While distributing product management responsibilities supports a linear, phase-and-gate-based process, it is not well suited for an agile environment characterised by rapid delivery and fast learning. Additionally, the handoffs between the different individuals can cause defects, delays, loss of information, and other waste; decision-making can be slow and may result in weak compromises; and if the product fails, a blaming game is likely to start.
“There can only be one”
The alternative is to put one person in charge of the product; the individual leads the product development and owns the product on behalf of the company. This integrates strategic and tactical product management aspects. It unites authority and responsibility, and speeds up decision-making. Meeting the user needs, creating a desirable user experience, and designing a sustainable business model receives the attention and leadership it requires. It increases the likelihood of realising the vision by delivering an attractive, well-rounded product.
But just like Connor, the main character in the Highlander movies, needs friends and allies, so does the product owner. To mitigate the risk of a single product owner being overworked or making suboptimal decisions, the Highlander principle must be complemented by collaboration: Leveraging the ideas of users and customers by gathering feedback on working software; and using the knowledge and creativity of the development team by jointly grooming the product backlog.
Working with a single product owner role can be particularly challenging on complex products or large projects. But you certainly don’t have to be an immortal to apply the role effectively. On complex products or large projects, you have two options: You can either employ a product owner hierarchy with an overall product owner in charge of the entire product and feature and component owners responsible for features and components.
The alternative I prefer is to break up complex, feature-rich products into several sub products, each owned by a single product owner.
A benefit of working with a product suite is that the sub products can be developed and released largely independently. Additionally, scaling issues can be avoided or at least reduced.