The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the role and responsibilities of the product owner, as observed and implemented in the Cluj software world/environment by the author. The topic is broad and cannot be fully covered in a single article, but I would like to provide one of many points of view in which the subject can be tackled inside each team and company.
First, let"s set the stage and clarify one thing from the beginning: the Product Owner role is associated with the Scrum methodology and should exist in a healthy Agile environment. It is true that each company is Agile in its own way, and that is not a bad thing. Diversity is good as long as we stay true to the base principle of "Inspect and Adapt". While I agree that one can call himself Agile as long as one respects the core principle, with Scrum is a different story. One either does Scrum, or does ScrumBut. It is important to clarify the direct connection between Scrum and the Product Owner role. In other methodologies the PO responsibilities are usually split between other team members such as (but not limited to): Project Manager, Product Manager, Architect etc.
I would like to start by quoting Mike Cohn, one of the founders of Scrum:
The product owner is commonly a lead user of the system or someone from marketing, product management or anyone with a solid understanding of users, the market place, the competition and of future trends for the domain or type of system being developed.
As stated above, there is a wide range of potential candidates for this role, therefore I would like to take this statement and slice it a bit.
"The product owner is commonly a lead user of the system" … let"s stop here. I have worked in a similar scenario where there was a lead user of the system that took the ownership of the product. This lead user had the vision and it was this user that set the direction. But as the user came from a domain unrelated with the IT industry and Scrum, they needed additional help in order to translate the vision into a Product Backlog. This help can be provided in different forms. In one scenario, provided that the lead user has the necessary bandwidth and the desire to take additional responsibilities, the lead user can become a fully fledge Product Owner (as described in the Scrum methodology), with proper training. I haven"t seen this happen too often, as in most cases the lead user doesn"t have the bandwidth or the desire to move into this position. Therefore, the second (and most common) scenario is to split the responsibilities that come with this role in two where the lead user will own the vision and the direction and a person inside the Scrum Team, a Proxy Product Owner, will create and own the Product Backlog. This setup is portrayed in the Figure A below and this is one of the setups I worked in, playing the role or the Proxy Product Owner. From my experience, I noticed that the lead user who plays the role of the "Product Owner" as illustrated below, doesn"t have the ownership of the budget to execute on the vision, nor she/he is interested in the Return Of Investment (ROI) for the product. From the perspective of someone who doesn"t directly invest money in the product but is directly impacted by the new functionality, the Return of Investment is always high. In these scenario, another player will have to come into the arena and claim the main responsibility of managing the budget. Depending on the company and culture, this person can be a Project Manager or an Engineering Manager.
The above scenario happens with a "twist" when a Customer takes the role of a Product Owner. Similar with the above situation, in most cases this Product Owner will work with a Proxy Product Owner, who is responsible for the Product Backlog creation. The "twist" sits in the budget ownership as this Product Owner will be genuinely interested in the ROI mainly because the money invested in the product come out of his/her pockets.
Let"s move on to further analyze the statement "The product owner is … someone from marketing, product management…". It is my strong belief that the Marketing Department of a company should have one of the most creative teams. They need to be on the forefront of the business and they need to have that "strong understanding of the marketplace and the competition". In the environment I worked, the Marketing had a close collaboration with the Product team. The ideas that were sometimes generated inside the creative Marketing department were usually digested and transformed inside the Products Team. This is another common scenario that I have encountered, where someone from the Product Team, in most cases a Product Manager, will own the product. In this setup, the person that plays the role of the Product Manager must have the necessary knowledge and the bandwidth to play the Product Owner role. This is the perfect scenario indeed, in which the Product Owner owns the vision, creates the backlog while also having the budget to execute the vision. This setup of Product Owner is represented in Figure B below, and I have created products from this role as well. It is an engaging role that comes with great power as you are directly responsible of the ROI for each feature and I had to balance the functionality delivered with the budget invested. In this setup we can clearly state that the owner is committed on all levels to the product and the team.
So far we have analyzed different situations in which the Product Owner might find himself, as well as a wide range of persons that can fill in this role. Now that we have identified some of the responsibilities, we shall dig deeper into this area. I would like to emphasize on the ones presented below, although the spectrum of responsibilities can (and usually do) include other activities.
The Product Owner needs to represent and manage the stakeholders interest. This collaboration is critical for the success of the product. The communication between stakeholders, the PO and the team is continuous and has the clear objective to keep everyone committed to the product and to provide constant feedback at all levels.
Another important responsibility is to create and continuously groom the Product Backlog. In this activity, the Product Owner should seek help from the Scrum Team. Once the vision has been communicated to the Team and some high level features have been identified, the Team can help in crystallizing the more detailed Product Backlog. I personally had this happen at the beginning of the journey, during a Sprint Zero and continuously during the life of the product during the Release Planning sessions. During these sessions, the fine details are identified in the form of User Stories that will go through a prioritization process, conducted again by the Product Owner.
I would like to emphasize one important aspect: there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the PO and the Team. One cannot exist without the other, and through this symbiosis both parties involved should thrive. The environment is a key factor for this symbiosis to exist. What should the environment provide in order to encourage this relationship? I personally believe that a healthy environment needs to nurture creativity and innovation more than anything else. The environment in which people are empowered and encouraged to come up with ideas and solutions, it the environment where great things can will happen. The Product Owner has the responsibility to create and groom this environment as well, as his product will be directly affected by having a motivated team. When I think of a motivated team my thoughts go back to the battles fought by our ancestors, where in many cases, the smaller army defeated the larger invader army just because of great leaders that knew how to motivate their soldiers. The role of a leader in a team can be played by multiple persons, but it is critical for the success of a product to have a strong leader in the person of the Product Owner
But how can one motivate a Team? I personally believe the best answer is: through passion. A Product Owner has to be passionate about the domain and the line of business he/she is trying to cover. If you do something out of passion, it will feel natural for you to stay on top of the game and stay "plugged" with the marketplace, the competition and all the news that relate to the domain. If one carries one"s tasks passionately, it won"t be a 9-to-6 job, actually it will not be a job to begin with… it will be something that one does because ones loves doing it. If the PO has this passion for the domain, this passion will be contagious within the Team and it will undoubtedly motivate each and every one of the members. Jack Welch, GE"s former chairman and CEO portraits this very well in the following statement:
"Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion,"
Another essential skill of a good Product Owner is his/her User Experience (UX) expertise. He/she doesn"t have to provide UX solutions from this role of Product Owner, but it would be great if he/she is able to provide a little bit more than a vision and a backlog. The Product Backlog is basically a set of functionalities, and don"t get me wrong, they are critical for the success of the product, but the way you "wrap" these functionalities and present them to the user, plays a critical role as well. Let"s take the classic example of the iPhone and the top competitors from the Android environment. The Android devices can easily match the functionality of an iPhone, in hardware and software, but the main difference today is in the User Experience and that has become a major, key selling point for Apple. It has become dramatically important for the Product Owner to be able to work with an UX expert in order to better define the experience layer for the user
In conclusion I envision the PO to be a passionate leader with great knowledge about the domain/ business and enough knowledge about Scrum to make this work, a combination that might not be that easy to find…
To find more about this role and the responsibilities I encourage you to join the training course which will take place in Cluj on May 15th- 16th on this topic provided by Ralph Jochan, Effective Agile.
More information on careers.endava.com/ProductOwnerTraining.
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