Too often in agile communities across the corporate spectrum, the majority of the focus is on the agile manifesto, agile framework, agile team, or agile development and testing strategies. Little attention is paid to the agile Product Owner. This paper will describe the importance, and practicality of the role in a realistic agile environment.
According to Mike Cohn’s book, Agile Estimating and Planning (2006), the primary duties of the Product Owner include “making sure that all team members a pursuing a common vision for the project, establishing priorities so that the highest-valued functionality is always being worked on, and making decisions that lead to a good return on the investment in the project.” Cohn (2006) continues in that “the second role of the Product Owner is that of customer.” “The customer is representative of a group or division” that is responsible for providing direction, prioritization, and decision making in support of the development the agile team is performing so a valuable product is built and launched for use by the community, (either a paying public or internal company users).
On the projects that I have worked on there have been strong and weak product owners; effective and ineffective product owners; or engaged or absent product owners. I have also observed that there are no two alike Product Owners. Each Product Owners brings with them their own thoughts, ideas, opinions, micromanagement; and they are always wanting to dictate what gets worked on, when it gets worked on, how it gets build, and how quickly it can development and completed.
The Product Owner role in agile is important because they are needed to do the following:
- Be the receiver of new product ideas and enhancements.
- Effectively manage constantly shifting business priorities.
- Effectively convert business valued product ideas and enhancements into business requirements.
- Transfer those business requirements into change requests epics and user stories.
- Effectively prioritize and provide guidance to the agile team building the software product.
- Willingness and knack to make decisions in moving the agile project forward.
Decisions made by the Product Owner are not made in a vacuum, they are made with the Agile team, business stakeholders, line-of-business and other individuals. Decisions have to be made so team progress can move forward, closure and acceptance of past sprint work can be performed and obtained, and old issues remain in the past. Additionally, Product Owners need to resist the following:
- Do not become a bottleneck. The Product Owner needs to make themselves available. If they cannot, have a Product Owner proxy, someone that can fill-in for the Product Owner when they are not available; they are knowledgeable about the system, business and backlog, and is empowered to make decisions.
- Do not be the architectural owner. The Product Owner should be the person who has the final say over the work prioritization decisions and not the technical direction. Combining the two leads to chaos and confusion.
- Do not lead the agile team. The team is self-led, self-empowered, and are coached by the Scrum Master, not the Product Owner. The Product Owner needs to available to the agile team as much as possible; to have a solid understanding of the business domain and the needs of the business stakeholders.
- Be a skilled negotiator. Many large projects have competing and mutually exclusive needs, as well as differing views on priorities. Those large projects also have many requirement and sub-team dependencies. The Product Owner needs to make themselves aware of the priorities and dependencies and be capable of speaking to anyone in the organization as priorities shift; risks have occurred, and maintain stakeholder expectations.
- Support and Protect the Agile Team. The Product Owner needs to be a proponent of the agile team, they need to aid the Scrum Master in protecting the team from errand business requirements, differing priorities, and quickly resolving issues that constrain or block the agile team from doing their work.
In summary, Product Owners is an important asset to any agile scrum team. They determine the certainty in an uncertain world of agile software development. They take the naive, the vague and turn it into a valuable product that increases ROI, increases product utility, as they meet time to market goals.