Product Owner: Not a Hippo

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

It’s often the first thing many teams get wrong when beginning to work with Scrum – choosing the right Product Owner. In this article, I want to explore role of the Product Owner and how to choose the right person for the job.

First, a quick summary of Scrum Roles to familiarise ourselves:

  1. Product Owner – owns the vision and the product backlog.
  2. Scrum Master – responsible for the effectiveness of the team – coaching the team, and the Product Owner to get the best out of Scrum.
  3. Developer – any individual (regardless of skill or job title) who is part of the Scrum Team and contributes to delivering the Sprint Backlog items.

The Product Owner owns the Product Backlog. Their role is primarily to take responsibility for the vision and direction of the product. This doesn’t mean they need to be a domain expert or subject matter expert (SME) – in fact, in many cases they are not. The Product Owner’s job is to work with stakeholders to determine what the requirements are and what will yield most value to the stakeholders. Don’t confuse the Product Owner with a Business Analyst. Although in many cases Business Analysts make great Product Owners, a Business Analyst may still be employed by a product owner to help gather the requirements. The Product Owner ultimately “owns” these backlog items, but doesn’t necessarily need to write them themselves. As long as they understand them, and accept them, and prioritise them.

In preparation for the Sprint, the product owner works to ensure that the product backlog is reflective of the requirements of the product in the medium term (2-3 sprints ahead). The developers (team members) may contribute items to the backlog, and may actually write all of the backlog items themselves – however the Product Owner “owns” them and ultimately determines the priority order of them. Generally, the Product Owner doesn’t ever refuse a backlog item. If a developer wants to add a backlog item they’re perfectly entitled to – but the Product Owner may never prioritise it high enough to actually get done, if they don’t feel it adds enough value.

The Product Owner works closely with the developers in preparation for a Sprint, grooming the backlog – and then during the sprint to clarify requirements, answer questions and provide feedback.

The Product Owner is pivotal in Scrum and relationships are key

At the end of the Sprint, it is the product owner who should do the demo. Yes, you read that correctly. The Product Owner should be so close to the product, and so up-to-date on the work being delivered, that it is they who give the demo during Sprint Review. This is the main reason you should have a dedicated PO for each Scrum team. They fully own their particular product, however small or specific it may be, and ultimately a collection of POs may report to a Product Manager with overall responsibility for the wider product.

What a Product Owner does not do, however, is actually develop work during the sprint. Sure – they answer questions, provide clarity and stay up to date on how it’s going, but they do not do the work themselves.

Accountability

The Scrum Guide (2020) describes the PO’s responsibilities as:

  • Developing and explicitly communicating the Product Goal;
  • Creating and clearly communicating Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering Product Backlog items; and,
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is transparent, visible and understood.

Developers may actually do some of these tasks, but the Product Owner is ultimately accountable for them.

Who makes a good product owner?

In a small organisation, this role often falls to the CEO, as they – like a product owner – generally own the vision of the company. This is fine – but once the organisation gets a little bigger, multiple product owners will be necessary. It’s important that the product owner owns their own backlog – and it’s extremely difficult to do this well for more than one Scrum team (maximum 10 people).

One gotcha to watch out for though is nominating a PO who does not have the time to fulfil their responsibilities correctly. The Product Owner should not just simply be providing HIPPO duties (HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion), and it is a serious misstep to assume that the PO must be the “boss”. It’s better to empower the PO to own a specific product (even if it’s a sub-product) and report to a Product Manager, than to have a poorly chosen PO and constantly be fighting for their attention.

If you’re in a client-services business, where you build products that your clients own, then the Product Owner should be a representative from your client, rather than an internal “proxy”.

Pro Tip

A good Product Owner has excellent stakeholder relationships and knows how to ask the right questions. They’re masters of delegation, fanatical about their customers and comfortable with taking important decisions using data and feedback as their basis. Excellent communication skills are critical so that everyone has clarity around the vision and goal of the product.

Who is the best person in your organisation to be the Product Owner? Remember – it’s a role within the Scrum framework, but doesn’t necessarily need to be their job title. In the case of a Product Owner, it often is their job title, but it really doesn’t have to be.

Find someone who can communicate the vision, can work well with the stakeholders and is willing to make decisions based on evidence, rather than personal will.