Product Owner: Beyond the Scrum Guide

The Scrum Guide is like the google map to Scrum, but it’s not a detailed roles and responsibilities document.  If we want to “zoom in” on “What specifically does the Product Owner  do?”, we aren’t going to get many results.  There is purposefully no prescription on “how”  a developer works, how a tester works, or how the Product Owner (PO) works, etc.; however, the PO is critical to the success of the product and the business.  As organizations adopt Scrum, the PO role is often overlooked and can cause frustrations unless the whole Scrum team (including the PO) and the organization have a more in-depth understanding of Product Ownership.

Here are my top three  activities that Product Owners commonly do, and how, that can either shape the success or failure of a product:

Top 3 PO Activities

1. Grow the Vision.  Self-organizing Scrum teams will build high quality, working products.  The vision laid out by the PO determines whether or not they are building anything of value.  This involves many different tasks and can be done in many different ways.  To be successful at these vision-related tasks, a PO has to both “grow” it and “show” it:

  • Grow it:  The PO has to be comfortable starting a project with only the big picture.  Then work to iteratively define and grow the vision by adding more and more concrete concepts, artifacts, and details.  All the while knowing that feedback from stakeholders and the market will shape their understanding of the product over time.  This takes an incredible amount of foresight and market understanding to get started in the right general direction, as well as the courage to simply start product development knowing parts of the vision may turn out to be incorrect.
  • Show it:  The PO has to over-communicate what the Product Vision is. When you think you’ve communicated the vision, communicate more: to your team, to the stakeholders. Don’t underestimate the power of using all available tools to do this, such as big visible walls with notes and graphics – this is showing.  A wall cannot replace a conversation – taking the time to make sure everyone involved in the product – and that means everyone – is included in the conversation and understands the vision is critical to your success.  Use hallway conversations, formal meetings and happy hours (most teams’ preferred method).  The more all stakeholders and the project team knows WHY  they are building what they are building, the better the results.  This has been proven over and over.  Simply stated: Vision + Self-Organization = Value.

2. Manage the Backlog.  Beyond the basics of creating a backlog full of product desirements and iteratively clarifying them during grooming sessions, a PO is responsible for the more nuanced activity of ordering.  The PO orders the backlog with many different criteria in mind: value, risk, priority, necessity, learning objectives, ROI,  dependency and many others. It’s the method by which the PO optimizes the value of the product for the stakeholders.  This is not a trivial task, nor is it completely objective.  Knowledge of the market, the vision of the product and short/long term opportunities all need to be taken into account.  Owning the backlog is the only activity of these three I’m discussing that is touched on in the Scrum Guide (sans specifics of course).  It’s also probably the most common PO dysfunction: POs are NOT simply backlog secretaries, or backlog item creator/maintainers.  A PO can rely on their team to do much of this work.  An efficient, functional PO spends less than 25% of his time dealing with tactical things like managing the backlog and the majority of his or her time on strategic activities like #1 and #3.

3. Steer the Product.  I struggle on what to call this part of the job.  “Plan Releases” is what I started with, and an important part of Product Ownership is creating MVP’s and selecting the right content for each release, but this is only the first step.  The real job here is learning from each release, testing the hypothesis you’ve delivered to the market and validating your vision of the product in its natural habitat (the market).  If it turns out many of your assumptions and hypothesis are wrong, you have to Steer the Product.  Depending on the magnitude of steering needed, the PO makes big changes to the Product Vision (pivot), or just small changes to the Product Backlog (persevere).  A PO is responsible for the current state of the product and the direction it is headed – and they accomplish this by Steering the Product.

Can one person do this role?  Yes, absolutely.  Does this mean that the Product Owner role replaces all manner of  marketing, strategic sales, and business analysis roles in an organization?  Absolutely not.  If the product is big enough, there may be a need for a PO to work along side all types of professionals providing things like: market analysis, sizing, trends,  strategy, competitive analysis, business process analysis, relationship building, user personas, business cases, pricing strategies, legal work, vendor sourcing, contracts, etc.  The PO can have people on the team or outside the team that understand (and even do the work for) these other items.  The PO remains responsible for the overall state of the product and its future.

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