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Agile Product Management with Scrum: Understanding the Product Owner Role

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A new product is launched with great expectations—and bombs. What went wrong? There was no single person responsible for leading the effort to create a winning product—a product owner. This chapter explores the role of the product owner. It explains the role's authority and responsibility as well as how the role should be applied.
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I once worked on a new health-care product destined to replace its predecessor. The new system was intended to provide more value for the customers and leapfrog the competition. After over two years of development, the new product was launched with great expectations—and bombed.

What went wrong? Somewhere between the idea and the launch, the product vision was lost amid the many handoffs. Product marketing performed the market research, wrote the product concept, and passed the concept on to the product manager. The product manager wrote the requirements specification and handed it off to the project manager, who passed it on to the development teams. There was no single person responsible for leading the effort to create a winning product, and no shared vision of what the product should look like and do. Everyone involved had a different view, a different vision.

What's the solution? Putting one person, called the product owner, in charge of the product. This chapter explores the role of the product owner. It explains the role's authority and responsibility as well as how the role should be applied.

The Product Owner Role

In the "Scrum Guide" (Schwaber 2009, 5), Ken Schwaber writes about the product owner:

  • The Product Owner is the one and only person responsible for managing the Product Backlog and ensuring the value of the work the team performs. This person maintains the Product Backlog and ensures that it is visible to everyone.

This definition sounds rather harmless until we consider its implications. The product owner leads the development effort to create a product that generates the desired benefits. This often includes creating the product vision; grooming the product backlog; planning the release; involving customers, users, and other stakeholders; managing the budget; preparing the product launch; attending the Scrum meetings; and collaborating with the team. The product owner plays a crucial part not only in bringing new products to life but also in managing the product lifecycle. Having one person in charge across releases ensures continuity and reduces handoffs, and it encourages long-term thinking. A survey at SAP AG revealed more benefits: The employees working as product owners felt more confident, more able to influence, more visible, better organized, and better motivated in the new role (Schmidkonz 2008).

Being the product owner is no solo act. The product owner is part of the Scrum team and closely collaborates with its other members. While the ScrumMaster and team support the product owner by jointly grooming the product backlog, the product owner is responsible for making sure that the necessary work is carried out.

It may be tempting to compare the role of the product owner to traditional roles, such as product manager or project manager. Any comparison fails to do it justice, though. The product owner is a new, multifaceted role that unites the authority and responsibility traditionally scattered across separate roles, including the customer or sponsor, the product manager, and the project manager. Its specific shape is context-sensitive: It depends on the nature of the product, the stage of the product lifecycle, and the size of the project, among other factors. For example, the product owner responsible for a new product consisting of software, hardware, and mechanics will need different competencies than one who is leading the effort to enhance a web application. Similarly, a product owner working with a large Scrum project will require different skills than one collaborating with only one or two teams.

For commercial products, the product owner is typically a customer representative, such as a product manager or marketer. An actual customer tends to assume the role when the product is being developed for a specific organization, for instance, an external client who requires a new data warehouse solution or an internal client (e.g., the marketing department) asking for a web site update. I have worked with customers, users, business line managers, product managers, project managers, business analysts, and architects who filled the product owner role well in the given circumstances. Even CEOs can play the product owner role. Take the example of Ript, a visual planning tool that lets users cut and paste images and text from one application to another. The software was the brainchild of Gerry Laybourne, CEO of Oxygen Media, who subsequently took on the product owner role for the software's first release (Judy 2007).

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