Scrum Roles: The Product Owner
The Product Owner is part of the Scrum team and therefore, like the ScrumMaster, has no authority over other members of the team. They do have a vitally important decision making role to play though since they are the main link between the Scrum team and the customer.
The agile Product Owner acts on behalf of the product’s stakeholders and is responsible for maximising the value of the end product. Where the ScrumMaster owns the process, the Product Owner can be thought of as owning value.
Who is the Product Owner?
The Product Owner is a single individual – the role shouldn’t be split up among several people or reside with a committee. The PO is part of the Scrum team and attends all the team’s meetings.
The Product Owner should be someone who understands the product vision and who can communicate that vision to the Scrum team.
They should understand the business objectives within a wider framework of the market, customer needs, competitors and digital trends. They should also be able to communicate effectively with stakeholders to lead the team’s discovery of the product and gather requirements. These two abilities will help them make decisions that are respected by the Scrum team.
The Product Owner and the Product Backlog
The Product Owner is responsible for managing the Product Backlog. This is the chief means by which they communicate the product vision to the Scrum team, maximise the value of the team’s work and, by extension, maximise the value of the end product.
The Product Owner not only decides what goes into the Product Backlog but also decides on the priority of each item. This has a big influence on the content of each sprint backlog since, while the team together decide what user stories will be delivered in each sprint (in sprint planning), it is the prioritisation of the stories by the Product Owner which determines which stories are up for consideration.
The Product Owner must ensure that the stories in the Product Backlog are presented in sufficient detail that they’re thoroughly understood by the team. This ensures that the team can plan sprints effectively and also that they know what needs to be done to complete each story.
The Product Owner and the ScrumMaster
While the ultimate responsibility for arranging the Product Backlog resides with the Product Owner the ScrumMaster can be of immense help to the PO during the process.
This is particularly true during Backlog Refinement where the Scrum team discuss the items at the top of the Product Backlog (i.e. those which are waiting to make it into the next sprint).
The sole purpose of a backlog refinement meeting is to help the Product Owner refine the prioritisation of the Product Backlog, so effective facilitation by the ScrumMaster can have a tremendous effect: by helping the team estimate the size of stories; by helping them split stories which are too large into smaller, constituent stories (and vice-versa); and by highlighting the need for more detail in stories.
Common Product Owner pitfalls
In order to keep the confidence of the Scrum team and to keep the team functioning efficiently a PO needs to be available and needs to be able to make decisions in a timely manner.
If the Product Owner isn’t imbued with the authority to make decisions, if they need to consult management or a committee of stakeholders at every twist and turn, then they obviously won’t be able to deliver maximum value. The business needs to be comfortable that their choice of PO can operate with a certain amount of autonomy (but with no less accountability) and give them the trust and support they need to do it.
A Product Owner that is stretched too thinly will also hamper a Scrum team’s progress. A PO shouldn’t be working on so many products/projects that their availability to the Scrum team suffers. Locating a PO on a different site to the team might have a similar, availability-reducing effect.
Splitting the Product Owner role up between several people or a committee can be confusing and slow the team down. Ideally there should be only one person who acts a repository of the product vision and who can make decisions about how best to meet that vision. A PO might be acting as the representative of a committee of stakeholders but they must be able to make decisions independently when on-the-ground.