It's a Tough Job... but Somebody Has to be the Product Owner

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Summary:

With so many corporate developers and IT teams beating a path to Scrum adoption there seems to be a lot of ScrumMaster training (both certified and otherwise) as well as coaching going on these days. Putting aside any worries about people receiving just enough training to be dangerous (e.g. 2-3 day ScrumMaster training is available from many sources) for moment, most of us think this trend towards Scrum and Agile Development is a very positive one indeed. That said, what concerns me the most is what I perceive to be an oversight of the need for product owner selection, investment and support.

Having coached many aspiring Scrum teams, I've noticed a trend or two among the converts. In particular I've witnessed a considerable lack of understanding and commitment when it comes to the significance of the product owner role. This is evident every step of the way, from initial selection of the person to play the role of product owner, to the lack of time dedicated to product owner duties, to the failure to recognize the need for investing in skill development (training, coaching, etc) for the role. In far too many corporate environments that are making the move to Scrum or similar Agile development methods, it seems that the assignment of product owner is all too often an afterthought. Many an IT/Product development group dons their current development manager/director with the added moniker of product owner. In other cases they nab someone from the marketing team and hand them the designation, with little thought as to just how much work is involved, let alone getting them the proper help (training or coaching) that they really need.

The product owner is a crucial, full time role in Scrum and it is a demanding one. The product owner is ultimately responsible to the creation of the product. They own the backlog, reconcile the needs and interests of all other stakeholders, prioritize the sequence of items in the backlog, provide feedback and guidance to the Scrum team, and ultimately pull the product they want from the Scrum team according to their vision.

So what's a newly appointed product owner to do? Well, the first step is to gain a better understanding of the responsibilities of the job, and a good second step would be to gain some appreciation for the effort required and skills necessary to fulfill these responsibilities.

Scrum is a collaborative game that emphasizes personal responsibility. So we'll start by identifying a few of the product owner's responsibilities that are key to success. These include:

 

  • Reconcile stakeholder requests
  • Manage the product backlog
  • Participate in the planning events
  • Inspect the product and provide feedback to the Scrum team

Reconcile stakeholder requests

The product owner is not likely the only source of product requirements. There may be many stakeholders who request functional, performance and other capabilities. The IT Infrastructure group may require that the product abide by certain security constraints and policies. Operations and Support may require that all company applications meet their logging or traceability specifications, Marketing may insist on particular branding or user interface guidelines. Even the essential business functionality may aim to satisfy the needs of a user community that includes several business units.

The one thing that all of these stakeholders have in common is that they all probably want their particular requests met first. It's up to the product owner to weigh these requests, as well as the purpose and value behind them, and determine which requests will be met and when. The product owner is the arbiter of stakeholder requests.

Information should flow in both directions. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of stakeholders as requirements donors, who make requests and get to see their results when the product is released. But that's counter to the principles of Scrum and likely to lead to very unhappy stakeholders. Keep that name in mind: stakeholders. These folks have a vested stake in the success of the product. As product owner, it's important to wear the hat of promoter. Keep your stakeholder community aware of the progress of the product. Since the best way to judge progress of product development is by inspecting the

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