by Peter Hyde
In the Scrum framework, the product owner is the voice of the customer, represents the internal stakeholders, and is responsible for delivering the highest possible value to the business.
In this series on the role of the product owner, I’ll help clarify product owner responsibilities and characteristics, the day-to-day work of the PO, anti-patterns that emerge in this role, and additional considerations not to be missed.
The Product Owner Overview
As the empowered lead role within the Scrum team, product owners are responsible for the product’s success. By creating, ordering and validating the list of work to be performed, the product owner has authority to decide what will be developed and when.
The ideal product owner is the person paying for the product, more generally a business-facing person is empowered to fill the role. It is important that they understand the market, product, business and any constraints involved.
By creating and communicating a clear vision, the product owner focuses the efforts of the team upon delivering the best possible customer value. Working closely with the customer and internal stakeholder, they work to bridge the gap between the business and customer needs, and the development team.
To achieve this, they must have deep customer knowledge, provide proactive stakeholder management and understand how the product is developed and delivered.
The product owner role is very demanding with significant responsibilities and as such, is generally considered full time. If you cannot devote at least half of your time to the role, then it is better to recruit someone who can.
Product Owner Responsibilities
Product owner responsibilities vary widely dependent upon the product and development environment, but include many common factors. The product owner owns all these responsibilities, but they should collaborate on them and may decide to delegate certain aspects.
Four common product owner responsibilities are:
1. Alignment on Vision
Product goal setting and the creation of a vision are the responsibility of the product owner. The vision needs to be clearly communicated with all those involved in the product including stakeholders and the development team. This enables the vision to be used when making decisions on prioritisation and direction.
2. Managing the Product Backlog
The product owner is responsible for the generation and management of the list of work to be completed by the development team. This involves writing product backlog items along with acceptance criteria, and ordering them to achieve the product vision. By making the product backlog visible to all those involved with the development, the product owner optimises work performed and ensures stakeholders understand the overall strategy and developmental roadmap.
The product backlog is the live source of all remaining work to be completed during development. It is continually updated to ensure that the team is able to deliver the most important tasks iteratively and incrementally.
3. Owning the Finances
The product owner is accountable for good economic decision-making during development at the sprint, release and product level. The iron triangle of scope, budget, time (and quality) can be traded in order to provide the best return on investment. The cost/benefit of each product backlog item can also be used to determine the ordering of work.
4. Participation in Development Events
The product owner is a key part of development events including planning, refinement, review, retrospective, the sprint and daily scrum.
During planning activities, they work with stakeholders to determine the content and steps required to deliver the next iteration at a sprint, release or product level.
Within weekly refinement sessions, they work with the development team to define, elaborate, estimate, order or delete product backlog items.
They lead reviews to ensure the product increment is examined in the optimum way to elicit feedback and determine the route forward for development.
During retrospectives, they collaborate as part of the team in determining and selecting improvement actions.
During the sprint, they work in the Scrum team, including answering questions and accepting product backlog items as they are completed. Only the product owner has authority to add or remove work from the sprint, cancel the sprint or stop overall development of the product.
They can also attend daily scrums to coordinate and collaborate with the development team on development work being performed within the sprint.
Product Owner Characteristics
There are five common characteristics for product owners:
1. Available and Engaged
A key aspect of the role is being available to answer questions from the development team. Questions can arise at any time and any delay will impact the capability of the team. The most successful projects have fully engaged product owners working daily as an integral part of the team.
The organisation must empower the product owner to make decisions with the knowledge that they will be held accountable. In order to maintain the required speed of development, decision-making must be made locally at the product level. If the product owner is frequently overruled by the organisation hierarchy, then their team will start to bypass them when asking questions.
The development team's questions must be answered promptly and with authority. Delaying decisions will prevent the work planned from being completed, and frequently reversing previous decisions will lead to a lack of trust. There is a balance to be made, but with the knowledge of the customer and support of internal stakeholders the product owner is in the best position to make these decisions.
4. Good Domain Knowledge
The product owner must have a good understanding of the target customers needs and appropriate business knowledge to lead development in coordination with all of the stakeholders. This requires strong support networks within the organisation and the creation of good relationships with customers and third-party suppliers.
5. Great Communication
This role requires an excellent communicator, collaborator and “people person” capable of sharing a vision, aligning people, focusing efforts and motivating the team. High emotional intelligence will help to collaborate and steer the product development to a successful conclusion.
In summary, within the Scrum framework the product owner:
- Creates and communicates the vision, strategy and roadmap
- Generates a high-level release plan
- Forms the product backlog containing all of the work to be performed
- Collaborates with the team to develop and deliver the work
- Works with customers to review releases and adjust development accordingly
- Actively supports the business with progress updates and metrics