Product owners are at the center of every development cycle. But what do they do?
To find this answer you could go look through Scrums definition, but truth is each organization approaches the title differently. This can also change depending on budgets and resource availability. In other words, don’t get too caught up on titles.
Product owner’s typically have several key roles and responsibilities covering everything from business strategy to product design. Let’s first understand what exactly is a “Product Owner”
What is a product owner?
At the most basic level, a product owner is the leader responsible for maximizing the value of the products created by a scrum development team.
Overview of Product Owner Roles and Responsibilities
The product owner takes the lead in many areas of product development. One day they will need to access their deep well of market knowledge to strategize and present their vision to stakeholders. Another day they will need to roll up their developer sleeves to help the team meet their goals during a sprint.
Here are just a few of a product owner’s responsibilities:
- Defining the vision
The agile product owner is the point person on the product development team, using their high-level perspective to define goals and create a vision for development projects. Notice I mention “high-level”. Product Owners do not need to go deep into the weeds or try to play developer and administrator. They do need have a documented clear vision.
Product owners are responsible for communicating with stakeholders across the board, including customers, business managers, and the development team to make sure the goals are clear, and the vision is aligned with business objectives. I have worked on projects were development is in a vacuum and the vision changes more times one can count which causes confusion and an always unfinished product.
Having a product owner with a higher perspective ensures that the team maintains a cohesive vision despite the flexible and often fast-paced nature of agile product development. Everyone needs to be on the same page for a project to work effectively.
A product owner can help the team maintain that vision is by creating a product road-map. The product road-map is a high-level, strategic visual summary that outlines the vision and direction for the product offering over time. It is both a strategic guide for stakeholders to reference as well as a plan for execution. This road-map is a living breathing document that must be updated frequently by the product owner.
- Managing the product backlog
One of the most important responsibilities for a product owner is managing the product backlog. This is the development team’s project to-do list.
The product owner’s responsibility is to create the list of backlog items and prioritize them based on the overall strategy and business objectives. Additionally, the product owner will need to map out project dependencies to inform the necessary sequence of development.
Like the roadmap, the product backlog isn’t a static to-do list. It is a live document that should be continually updated based on evolving project needs throughout development.
Because the product backlog will change frequently, the product owner must make the list accessible and available to all executive, business and technical stakeholders to ensure optimized performance and project outcomes.
- Prioritizing needs
Another key role of the product owner is to prioritize needs. Like a project manager they must juggle the triangle of scope, budget, and time, weighing priorities according to the needs and objectives of stakeholders.
For example, if the product under development needs to launch within six months, that constrains the scope of the project. As the project evolves, the product owner will have to gauge which areas have flexibility and which don’t to determine how and when each iteration and product element will be developed.
- Overseeing development stages
With the vision, strategy, and product priorities set, the product owner should spend a significant amount of time overseeing the actual development of the product. They are a key player throughout each event, including planning, refinement, review, and sprint. The product owner also needs to understand their limitations and allow teams to work independently without constant distractions.
During the planning stages, the agile product owner works with stakeholders to identify and organize the steps required for the next iteration. They will then meet with their team to refine the process, identify areas for improvement, and support the sprint.
- Anticipating client needs
The successful product owner will be an expert at understanding and anticipating the client’s needs to more effectively manage the development process.
Their deep market knowledge and communication skills allow them to anticipate problems or needs and address them.
- Acting as primary liaison
The product owner is also the primary communicator and link between stakeholders and teams. As such, they must be expert communicators, ability to negate on behalf of the stakeholders needs, making sure there’s buy-in from stakeholders on all major decisions and strategy and clear instructions and deliverables for the developers. If you’re not approachable and cannot take criticism well your product is doomed.
- Evaluating product progress at each iteration
The product owner is accountable for each stage of the development process and the final product. They take a primary role in inspecting and evaluating product progress through each iteration. The product owner makes the judgment call on the performance, deciding if the team needs to go back to the drawing board or if they can move on to the next steps.
- Understanding Business Needs
Product Owners needs to know to use Lean verses a full-blown product. If your product and project is over budget, you may want to reevaluate your priorities and focus more on what’s possible now verses the future.
- Know Who is Who
It’s hard to lead a successful product if you don’t know what your title is. At the same time if no one has been given the title of product owner, no one has the steering wheel.
- Present Often & Know Your Audience
A good product owner is always presenting value added features. Before any presentation the question needs to be asked “What value will this add to x?” How do you know it will add value? Never present technical solutions to business stakeholders. As an example: Apple iPhone is just a smart phone, it’s a tool that allows you to have a better life once you use it.