The Product Owner Paradox

Insights | 01 May 2018

Projects are typically about addressing a specific (internal or external) customer opportunity, problem, challenge or change that cannot be handled as business as usual. A pivotal component of any project is the ‘voice of the customer’: capturing the customer’s wants, needs, expectations, preferences and aversions.

With agile methods and practices becoming more commonplace and being applied in different projects (not just IT), the term ‘Product Owner’ is also becoming more commonplace. Product owner is one of the three roles defined in Scrum and on face value is almost self-explanatory: the person who ‘owns’ the product, thereby the person who is the ‘voice of the customer’, clearly expressing requirements and is responsible for achieving maximum business value.

Product Owner: Simple to define but difficult to master

Scrum itself is defined as ‘lightweight, simple to understand and difficult to master’. Equally, the last two characteristics could be applied to the role of product owner.

By definition, the product owner:

  • Clearly expresses product backlog items (i.e requirements)
  • Orders product backlog items to best achieve goals and missions
  • Optimises the value of the work of the development team
  • Ensures the product backlog is visible, transparent and clear to all
  • Ensures the development team understands product backlog items to the level needed

In effect, the product owner has the final say on the final product: they have sole accountability for the product. As such, the entire organisation must respect their decisions.

The Scrum Guide™ (Schwaber and Sutherland) clearly states the product owner is one person, not a committee (the product owner may represent the desires of a committee, but the sole power is with the actual product owner).

This may work well in a business as usual environment or a ‘small’ project, but may be more challenging (and difficult to master) in ‘larger’ projects.

Scaling the Product Owner Role

Large projects may have multiple ‘delivery’ teams working in parallel and as a result a product owner is required within each team to focus on the ‘voice of the customer’ for that specific team. The role of ‘chief’ or ‘super’ product owner may be used for overall co-ordination. The chief product owner ensures appropriate prioritisation overall of the work being delivered in order to maximise value and realisation of the end customer’s goals.

10 tips for determining the ‘right’ Product Owner….

When agreeing/appointing a product owner for a project team consider:

  1. Do they have specific customer knowledge and understanding of the product?
  2. Are they empowered to make decisions?
  3. Are they an effective communicator at all levels?
  4. Can they clearly articulate the vision of the product?
  5. Can they define product requirements (user stories)?
  6. Do they have the ability to ensure customer needs are translated into valuable deliverables?
  7. Are they able to define what a successful outcome looks like?
  8. Can they effectively prioritise (and as necessary re-prioritise) requirements?
  9. Is their focus on ensuring value creation for the project?
  10. And most importantly, are they available to the project team at all times?

For more information on our Scrum Product Owner Certified (SPOC™) course, please call us on 1300 70 13 14.

About The Author

Tracey Copland, Head of Best Practice at PM-Partners group

Tracey has been involved in management, finance and business consulting including Portfolio, Programme & Project management for 20+ years. Together with her skills and experience, Tracey is a flexible professional seeking to achieve a high work standard, focussing on value-add.

Having been with PM-Partners group for 15 years, Tracey has held roles including Consultant/Trainer, Head of Training and currently, Head of Best Practice. Tracey has provided training and consultation services to clients in both the public and private sectors, across various disciplines and at all levels including Project, Programme, Portfolio and Change Management, and Agile practices.

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