For a rapidly evolving role, the basic requirements of product ownership are somewhat ill-defined. The role was developed initially in Scrum, which has become the most widely used and recognized component of Agile development. But the concept is close to the chief engineer in Lean engineering as well as similar roles in other Agile philosophies. Product owner is a critical role, but one that has sprung from software development rather than the business side. We must bring today’s product owner into the organizational structure.
The product owner role is crucial because it represents the actual interface between stakeholders — users, managers, marketers, and the business community — and the development team. Without the product owner, development is no longer Agile, and most of its potential benefits can be lost.
For starters, it is important to understand the following responsibilities of the product owner in Scrum:
- To prioritize the backlog of features from which selections are made for each development sprint
- To ensure the real needs of stakeholders are represented, with the resultant code representing real value to the business
- To participate in all planning and retrospective sessions and provide stakeholder representation
- To gather and develop the user stories around which features are developed
- To help ensure valuable features will be released in each sprint
- To determine if the results of sprints are acceptable and participate in the retrospective
The product owner role has evolved from this basis, which is heavily grounded in the development environment.
Today’s product owner straddles business and development. Actual responsibilities vary depending on the specific situation; this makes it particularly difficult to tie down. There are wide differences between the needs for smaller projects versus larger ones, software intended for internal use versus commercial product, and updates or remakes of existing software versus development of a wholly new project. There are also variations of the product owner role as it appears within a software-focused business as compared with a business centered upon something else.
Product owners may come from a wide range of areas within the firm. The business analyst role is often the best choice because the product owner must know not only the basics of coding practices (and Agile development), but also how IT understands business processes. Further still, the product owner must also serve as the interface between the business and the development communities, and this requires additional skills. Existing product managers seem an intuitive choice, but this can be a mistake. Product managers are outward-facing, and marketing imposes its own pressures. Depending on the company’s principal business, product managers may not have a sufficient understanding of development to perform adequately in this role. However, product managers can be effective owners for smaller organizations, smaller projects, or where the roles cannot be easily divided.
In current Agile practice, the product owner may be drawn from the user, marketing, or development communities. Required skills are diverse, and the complexity of the task greatly depends on the specific environment. For small projects, responsibilities may be fairly routine, but more complex development may require the understanding of a range of techniques for eliciting stakeholder input, as well as for fitting products and product needs into a wider business plan. Techniques that can aid in this role aim at discovering user needs (e.g., observation, interviews, user tests) and at fitting product expectations into an overall plan through roadmapping, competitor analysis, and release planning.
For very large projects, the Agile community often advocates employing multiple product owners, each devoted to feature sets developed for an “epic,” or a large, complex software project. In these situations, organizations can structure the product owners in the same manner as a Scrum of Scrums, often basing them on the same development divisions (one product owner per Scrum).
How the product owner interfaces with the organization itself is subject to considerable recent debate. The product owner needs to fit into existing organizational structures and be subject to the same guidance as other senior positions. Organizations must establish appropriate rules and responsibilities and map out the product owner role with respect to other activities in the firm. The development organization views this role one way, but the business side is likely to demand other commitments. How much responsibility does the product owner get for each release, and for the whole project, for example?
Above all, the product owner needs to understand the self-governing nature of agility — and avoid reversion to a command-driven approach. This is another reason why project managers may find the role difficult, as might those managers from any other area who are accustomed to a more hierarchical organization. Yes, business analyst, line management, and product management skills are all needed, but none are the same job.