Try asking 10 companies what a product owner is and you may get 10 different answers. Better yet, try asking 10 people within the same company.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a standard implementation of the PO role across organizations. But if you want to thrive as a product owner — or collaborate well with one as a product manager — you’d better understand what the role is and what it is not.
In this guide, I’ll walk you through common antipatterns, responsibilities, and variations of the product owner role in agile teams.
The product owner, on the other hand, is assigned to a team (or multiple teams) and operates at a tactical level. The PO aims to maximize value through creating and managing the product backlog and acting as the voice of the customer.
The product owner role focuses on development and implementation through short-term activities and helping the product development team(s) understand what needs to be done. Basically, the PO’s job is set up the team to create a reliable, scalable, secure, and maintainable solution.
A product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the team’s activities. This person is accountable for outcomes, not outputs.
When it comes to scrum, the product owner’s responsibilities are as follows:
That said, the job is not limited to these responsibilities. To thrive as a product owner, you must go beyond scrum because the framework is incomplete by design.
When product owners limit themselves to scrum, they tend to fall into a backlog owner trap in which they get obsessed with execution and forget about strategy.
In addition to their scrum responsibilities, the product owner must also be involved in the following:
The responsibilities and activities of a product owner vs. product manager often overlap, but the roles and areas of accountability are not interchangeable.
To summarize the difference as simply as possible: The product manager focuses on building the right product, while the product owner focuses on building the product right.
The table below compares the responsibilities, tasks to be managed, and skills required to fulfill them between the product owner vs. product manager role:
|Product manager vs. product owner: Tasks to manage|
|Product manager||Product owner|
|Owns relationship with the business and customer||Represents the voice of the customer|
|Owns product vision and roadmap||Contributes to product vision and roadmap|
|Owns program backlog||Owns team backlog(s)|
|Defines features and releases||Defines iterations and stories|
|Tracks market changes and trends||Accepts iterations increments|
Understanding the antipatterns and pitfalls associated with product ownership is the key to avoiding them. That includes understanding what product owners are not responsible for.
A product owner is not a:
Another common point of confusion stems from the inconsistency with which different agile frameworks define the role. For example, a scrum product owner is entirely different from a SAFe product owner. The first has an end-to-end responsibility, while the second is limited to execution.
SAFe has a product manager to take care of strategy. In scrum, strategy is on the product owner’s shoulders.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a black-and-white definition. This discussion can get complicated because people have strong opinions about it.
In my experience, end-to-end responsibility leads to ownership and better results. When responsibilities are divided between roles, it creates a blame game.
For example, when there’s a failure, the product manager blames the product owner for poor execution. Meanwhile, the product owner blames the product manager for poor strategy. That’s why I recommend having end-to-end responsibility and smaller teams.
It’s challenging to be a product owner. Expectations are high and pressure comes from all layers of the organization. The upside is that you increase the odds of standing out when you have specific skills.
A good product owner is someone who excels in the following areas:
With the above skills, you will be ready to face the inevitable challenges ahead of you.
You will face many challenges as a product owner. That’s part of the game. But knowing how to create value while effectively dealing with those challenges is what separates a good product owner from a great one.
The most common challenges product owners face include:
If you tell your business stakeholders, “We’re focusing on goals and we don’t know exactly what we will create,” they’re unlikely to take that sitting down. They’ll almost certainly push you to define in certain terms what is to be done and by when.
It’s a tough challenge, but collaboration and alignment can help you navigate it.
A common antipattern is believing that more features lead to more values. Stakeholders always want you to increase the team’s output speed. If you fall into that trap, you’ll find yourself running a feature factory.
In the digital product world, less is more. Focus on outcomes, not outputs.
Be careful: product ownership involves aspect of project management, but you’re not a project manager.
Doing risk management, timelines, and command and control is easy. The main difference is getting comfortable operating without plans. You don’t need to define 10 steps ahead of the team. You need to set a goal, determine the first step, and adapt incrementally.
Requirements are tricky. In classic software development, requirements define what you must do. But in modern product development, you don’t need to gather requirements. What’s important is understanding the context, success criteria, and objectives.
It defines you must do something, which is the case of classic software development, but not with modern product development. You don’t need to gather requirements but understand the context, success criteria, and objectives.
Wearing the product owner’s hat can be daunting given the scope of accountability. You will fail several times before you succeed; that’s part of the journey. Curiosity and willingness to adapt continuously will help you grow into the role quite nicely.
Another thing to consider is the conditions you have to play this game. Most companies won’t offer you the conditions you find in books like Inspired or Empowered by Marty Cagan. Still, you’ve got to get the job done.
My best advice for product owners is to understand the cards you’re dealt and make the best move with what you have in front of you. Don’t waste time complaining about the cards you don’t have. Act, move, learn, and improve.
Featured image source: IconScout
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