The Product Owner: Choosing the Right Person for the Job

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Summary:

Agile teams large or small, co-located or distributed, have one very important common denominator: the absolute imperative that a strong product owner be established before any work begins. Arguably the strongest, or weakest, link in any Agile team is the product owner. At odds with this basic fact is a startling oversight of this role at the outset of many projects. Add to this a multi-site outsourced development team and it's no wonder successful enterprise Agile adoption is slow going. What makes a good product owner? Why is this role critical to the success of any Agile project? How should this role be supported within the team and organization? These fundamental questions will be addressed herein.

Defining the Product Owner Role
The main responsibility for a product owner is to keep the team integrated and focused on the ‘greater good' of the project to ensure the system creates business value. Break this down and the product owner has some very specific tasks to manage:

  • Ensure the finished product meets the business needs of the company.
  • Decide the incremental release schedule and the function of each.
  • Create and manage each backlog during every sprint.
  • Prioritize stories according to business impact and reprioritize if this changes.
  • Sign-off on all work once it is complete (the ultimate responsibility).
  • Provide feedback to the development team and adjust as needed.

{sidebar id=1}Beyond this, and perhaps the most important responsibility, is he is charged with stakeholder management and communication. The product owner must straddle two worlds: the Scrum team world and the customer world. He must prioritize the customer's interests and represent them within the Scrum team. Similarly, he has to represent the Scrum team's needs within the customer community - a sort of ‘devil's advocate' for both the Scrum team and the customer. The ability for a product owner to keep the development team focused on the highest priority, most strategic pieces of the build is a major factor in what makes Agile so successful.

Without a strong product owner and appropriate effort by a company to support this role, the responsibility must be split and piled onto the existing workload of the business analysts, lead developers, technical project managers, business project managers, etc. This is not an effective or efficient workaround and will lead to problems down the line such as the development team working on the wrong priorities, and in a worst case scenario the wrong functionality all together.
How to Identify a Product Owner Candidate
Success can not be forecast almost solely by personality traits for the majority of roles in an Agile team. Product owner is such a role where the character attributes are key. Take a good look at your product owner candidate. What sort of person is he? Is he the sort of person that can deal with multiple stakeholders, make clear decisions, impact group decisions, all the while articulately demonstrating the trade-offs needed in an Agile project? This character attribute is critical in order to prioritize the business value and get a working product out of the door in a timely manner without the development team melting down.
Does the product owner fill you with confidence that he will stand up and fight for his decisions or is he a ‘shrinking violet' that will cave in at the first disgruntled user and then change his mind at the second? The need for this sort of self-confidence and strength of character will be tested often when executing an Agile project.
This product owner must embody and demonstrate an exceptionally sophisticated communications skill set. You'll be asking the product owner to prioritize according to business value and to make tough decisions which he will have to defend to the customer stakeholders. Weak product owners will fold here and place blame on the development team, weakening the overall value of the product and integrity of the development team This all has to happen smoothly while avoiding a breakdown into finger-pointing and a destructive blame-game. Without these ingredients, the product owner will not be able to do an effective job - in extreme cases, failure here may be terminal for team moral. Bad blood can last a long time and cause management much frustration.
Supporting the Product Owner
When implementing Scrum, where you have a highly collaborative team

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