What does a Product Owner do? Is it a full time job? Are they the customer? Are they the owner of the product?
It’s been over 15 years since the Agile Manifesto was signed and a new era heralded with a focus on working products over (but not to the exclusion of) documentation. Schwaber and Sutherland, though, collectively presented Scrum at the OOPSLA 1995 conference, from which emerged the role of the Product Owner.
What is a Product Owner?
The Product Owner is one of three roles in Scrum, the other two being the Development Team and the Scrum Master. Some people confuse this role with the role of the “customer” in the Agile Manifesto when it says:
“customer collaboration over contract negotiation”.
Others also confuse the Product Owner role in Scrum with the “business” in the principles of the Agile Manifesto:
“Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”
What does a Product Owner do?
In the latest version of the Scrum Guide (2017), Schwaber and Sutherland state the Product Owner’s responsibilities as:
- Maximising the value of the product resulting from work
of the Development Team.
- Manage the Product Backlog.
What does managing the Product Backlog involve?
- Clearly expressing Product Backlog items
- Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions
- Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next
- Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.
That’s not to say, though, that the Product Owner does all these things themselves. It just means that they make sure it happens.
A full-time or part-time role?
If a person tries to do all these things themselves, write items for the Product Backlog, refine it themselves, engage with customers, business, and collect and document traditional “requirements”, then they’ll find this absorbs all their time. This work exponentially grows when a Product Owner serves more than one Scrum Team.
The most effective Product Owners delegate action to their Development Team, draw on their Scrum Master to support internal stakeholder engagement on agile ways of working, so they can focus on crafting a pathway to realise their vision. This is where they can add the most value and it promotes self-organisation and ownership of product development within the Development Team.
What do the gurus say a Product Owner does?
- Close collaboration with the customer
- Serve as the customer(s) proxy
- Single voice of direction for the team
- Help the Development Team understand the customer and the context
- Work with the Development Team to refine the Product Backlog
- Be involved in continuous improvement with the Development Team 
- Create value for customers and users
- Should have strategic product management skills, such as productstrategy and road mapping, as well as tactical ones, including product backlog management 
The Product Owner does not get to say,
“We have four Sprints left, therefore you must do one-fourth of the Product Backlog this Sprint” 
The Scrum Product Owner’s job is to motivate the team with a clear, elevating vision.
The Development Team members know best what they are capable of, and so they select which Stories from the top of the Product Backlog they can deliver during any Sprint.
Rather than focus on developing software, Jeff Patton suggests a slightly different focus for Product Owners.
“Our job is not to develop software, our job is to change the world”
Conclusions: Where is a Product Owner’s focus?
If a Product Owner only represents “the business”, they miss out on the bigger picture.
There are nearly always numerous products, parts of products, features — a whole ecosystem of pieces that customers interact with. A Product Owner must own the vision, work with others, and balance many perspectives, in order to truly deliver value.
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