Breaking Down the Role of the Product Owner

Combating legacy product development methods with a more flexible (dare we say Agile) project management style requires some roles and accountabilities to be cleared up. Undoubtedly, one of the most important is the Product Owner. Antiquated tactics (*cough* the Waterfall Method *cough*) might have you confusing project management responsibilities with Product Owner responsibilities like the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch. But we’re here to tell you… You’re not in Kansas anymore.

What is a Product Owner?

A Product Owner is an accountability defined by Scrum and is on a Scrum Team.  The Product Owner has one focus: maximizing the value of the product. Being able to do that effectively means that a Product Owner must have a solid understanding of customer needs. One of the primary responsibilities of a Product Owner, therefore, is to interface with customers and other stakeholders to precisely identify problems, priorities, and market behaviors.

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Product Owners are also intimately involved in the development of the Product Goal. Progress toward that goal is measured at the Sprint Review with the entire Scrum Team present. They work with the entire Scrum Team to craft Sprint Goals, define the Definition of Done if not already an organizational standard, and they represent customer needs within that team. 

Not a Project Manager

Within a traditional delivery paradigm, a project manager is responsible for creating transparency around progress, delivery risks, risk mitigation plans, financials, and all the tactical elements of keeping the delivery train on the tracks. A project manager often does not work as closely with the Developers as a Product Owner does.

In an Agile work environment where the Scrum Framework is used, a Product Owner actively manages the Product Backlog and has a good understanding of what the Developers are doing andthe goal they are working toward. Product Owners ensure that Product Backlog items are clear, transparent, and well understood by all members of the team. A Product Owner participates in Sprint Planning, Sprint Reviews, and Sprint Retrospectives. In general, they act like a product manager with regard to all of their business responsibilities, but one that works closely with the Scrum Team for business benefit.

Project managers, by contrast, are not nearly as involved in the nitty-gritty details of how the train operates (how developers make a product) as they are most concerned with keeping the train on schedule. For project managers that lack a deep understanding of Scrum or Agile development in general, they may also not understand the benefits of incremental delivery, continuous feedback, and overall transparency in complex development efforts.

What are a Product Owner’s Primary Responsibilities?

At this stage, you might be asking what a Product Owner does on a day-to-day basis. What, specifically, does a Product Owner’s work look like? Though the details might vary significantly across organizations and products, some general responsibilities don’t change.

  • Representing the customer’s needs on the Scrum Team
  • Researching and understanding customer problems and deciding on the priority of solving them
  • Clearly expressing any details to the Developers
  • Creating Product Backlog Items that align with the Product Goal
  • Understanding value, communicating value to Developers, and optimizing the value the Developers create

How Does The Role Differ in Scrum?

The idea of a Product Owner is sometimes cherry-picked and associated with other Agile delivery models. But it’s worth pointing out the role was and is defined specifically in the Scrum Guide. It follows that the accountability of the Product Owner is most likely to see success with teams that are officially using the Scrum Framework.

Every Scrum Team has a Product Owner and a Scrum Master. Understanding the differences between these roles is essential to understanding the power of Scrum. A Product Owner and a Scrum Master have set out to achieve the same goal, are on the same team, but are playing on different sides of the field.

Scrum Masters teach, coach, facilitate as needed, and remove impediments from Scrum Teams. They’re focused on the positive outcomes a good Scrum Team can deliver. They do this by being a champion for empirical process control and protecting the Scrum Team’s ability to self-manage around solving complex problems. 

By contrast, the Product Owner’s role is less about focusing on the details of Scrum implementation, and more about ensuring the Developers deliver maximum customer value. The bottom line is this: Scrum Masters and Product Owners are both crucial to the proper functioning of Scrum Teams; generating a good product requires both.

How to Set Product Owners Up for Success

Product Owners make decisions that affect the entire Scrum Team. They manage the Product Backlog with continuous customer and stakeholder feedback. When new ideas are created in the Product Backlog, the Product Owner is accountable for managing where they go to maximize the value delivered. The Product Owner is also required to clearly and transparently communicate Product Backlog items to the Developers.

Clear communication and clear delineation of accountabilities within the Scrum Team is thus essential for successful incremental product delivery. The Product Owner’s decisions can and should be scrutinized and refined during Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives to ensure they don’t stray too far off course. Successful Product Owners have humility, courage, focus, and the respect of the whole Scrum Team.

In a deep sense, a Product Owner is integral to a Scrum Team. Product Owners play an essential role by serving as the interface with and representative of the customer. They’re the conduit through which the rest of the development team has interaction with customer priorities and requirements. They maximize value and minimize waste-of-time development activities.

You simply don’t have successful Scrum without a Product Owner.

Gain Expert Insight

Understanding the intricacies of each role within a Scrum Team requires a deep knowledge of the framework. And leveraging those roles properly within an organization is even more difficult, requiring a lot of diverse experience. Not everybody has that experience.

But we do. Responsive Advisors has worked across several industries bringing expertise in Agile and Scrum practices to organizations of many sizes with different histories. We know how to establish, build, and reinforce Agile principles within companies. And of course, we have a deep appreciation for the essential role of a Product Owner (not to mention all the other members of a Scrum Team).

So if you want expertise and insight into your company’s development practices, you’ve come to the right place. We’re available for everything from consultation to courses, all targeted toward the specifics of your company and your specific personnel profile. We’ve got you covered, from theory to practice.

Robert Pieper

Robert Pieper has been a licensed Professional Scrum Trainer since 2014 and National Public Speaker since 2013. Robb holds an MBA from Marquette University and an Electrical Engineering Degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering. Robb has 15 years of professional software development experience with a passion for making Scrum work delivering real products and services
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