Product Ownership in Scrum

A vast majority of software development work concerns new product development. Every software product is essentially unique. We create previously non-existing products, suites, integrations and product extensions. We never create the same product twice. We expand existing products into the new product area. Competition, market expectations and technologies move so fast that acquired concepts, practices and approaches are outdated by the time they become well adopted, forcing us de facto into new product development anyhow.

Software development, as new product development through and in complex conditions, requires a startup mindset, no matter the size or age of the product or the master company. The Product Owner, as promoted in the Scrum framework, becomes an Agile Product Manager, the product’s president, its mini-CEO, an entrepreneur. The rise in complexity and uncertainty renders big plans into meaningless waste. The Product Owner drives iterative development from an exploratory attitude, aiming at incremental progress through continuing discovery and validated learning.

Every Sprint has a Sprint Goal as next horizon to work against. The Sprint Goal describes a (business) challenge, from an assumption of (market) value for the (Increment of) product. The outcome of a Sprint provides an important learning option. But the learning is only meaningful when it can be assessed against the product’s external impact and adoption; in affirming or negating the assumption of value underlying the Sprint Goal. The goal of the learning is to find out whether an opportunity is real, whether there is an audience willing to use the product, whether the audience appreciates the delivered functions.

In the absence of a release, value remains an obscure assumption. It is a major unknown and a risk for further investments. The unknown remains unresolved, and the risk is out of control, until the product is brought to market; be it a contained market segment, be it a limited or the full user base. With every Sprint without an actual release, the risk increases exponentially that the Product Owner runs out of tune with the evolving market and is wasting money, time and creativity. Increments of product, seemingly incomplete but offering minimal usable feature sets, provide the foundation for validated learning. Users need it to provide the Product Owner with feedback on the actual value of the performed work, the base to decide on the best future direction of the product. No document, design, paper document or simulation provides the same, high level of validation. Without that ultimate validation no informed decision over strategies or tactics can be taken, not in the least the decision whether to continue on the chosen path or to change direction.

Learning requires not only goals and feedback loops, but also measurements and data to support the validation process. Evidence of value is needed to confirm or contradict the assumptions. Evidence-Based Management can guide the entrepreneur and the stakeholders in their investment decisions.

Scrum can be at the heart of such entrepreneurship. Scrum frames the creativity of people to better deal with complexity and uncertainty. The empirical foundation of Scrum is a structured way to steer experimentation and discovery through frequent validation. In a situation where uncertainty is too big to plan, it is a way to make real progress; progress that is founded in reality, not in plannified imagination.

Seeing the Product Owner in Scrum merely as a requirements engineer, a requirements provider or someone to prioritize a preset Product Backlog is unlikely to help organizations capitalize on the entrepreneurial potential of Scrum. Seeing Scrum as a goal in itself results in gazing at internal performance, volume (of features, of hours, of points) and productivity (velocity or derivatives). Scrum is designed as a mean, a mean to maximize the value of software; value to the market and value to the organization and its people. Scrum is designed to make progress, grow and prosper trough validated, incremental learning. The Product Owner, the owner of the product, takes up the essential role of entrepreneur.

In today’s complex and unpredictable world, Scrum can be the engine of innovation and exploration. It is a choice though. It is your call on how you want to use Scrum.

3 thoughts on “Product Ownership in Scrum

  1. Could this be the best definition of the PO role? “The Product Owner drives iterative development from an exploratory attitude, aiming at incremental progress through continuing discovery and validated learning with the ultimate objective of increasing business value”

    • Thanks, Justin, for looking at it from this perspective. I hope this perspective (definition?) to the Product Owner also helps you in your daily work, and in explaining the role to the organizations you work with.

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