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Product Owner. Not the Agile name for project manager or other outdated functions.

The Product Owner in Scrum is accountable for the value delivered. Besides the fact that value is a very different driver than volume is (think outcome versus output), that accountability can hardly be demonstrated without a clearly identified ‘product’. Product is the vehicle to deliver value. Neither can a Product Owner be accountable and effective without a mandate to make decisions. Product Owner accountability cannot be mapped on existing roles or functions, nor can it be effectively enacted through deliverables and meetings dating from the industrial paradigm.

Although ‘product’ determines the scope, span and depth of Scrum, it is one of the most ignored considerations when Scrum is introduced. Organizations often introduce Scrum by constructing teams within existing departments and silo structures. The ‘Product Backlogs’ that they work off may be fascinating collections of work, but they are rarely for a…product. But how can you then know what the Product Owner actually owns? What purpose serves Product Backlog if not the single source of work to optimize for the value that a product delivers? What is it that releasable Increments are being created of when not of a well-defined product?

Without a clearly identified ‘product’ optimizing for value is hardly possible and Scrum is hardly used effectively.

When teams work within the confines of a traditional line organization, the highest achievable definition of product is often a part of a system, a component, a module or ‘something’ to be shipped tosomeone’. Teams deliver work to other teams that in turn combine it with their work or the parts of the system, components or modules they produce. And other teams again depend on the work to be received from them. As the different teams often operate under different line management, it ends up with nobody minding the synergies across them, with nobody minding the actual product and the value delivered to end-users, with nobody minding how poorly Scrum is organized and employed. One might wonder where the courageous Scrum Masters have gone but in the end the effective use of Scrum is impeded by mapping it to the old delivery structures to keep producing the same parts and modules for the same sub-products in a series of open-loop systems rather than thriving on closed-loop feedback control.

The challenge is to know your product or service so you can start organizing your Scrum to best serve the people consuming it and the organization funding its development, while increasing the sense of accomplishment for the people performing the work!

After knowing the product, the mandate and autonomy of the Product Owner is the next tactical challenge to tackle. Is your Product Owner the best placed person to make business decisions or is your Product Owner a proxy, a distant representative, a temp like a project manager or some other intermediary? Are the decisions by your Product Owner fully supported or does your Product Owner have to check in with managers, directors or the steering committee before making a decision? Any decision?

Regardless, the minimal purpose of the Product Owner role in the Scrum framework is to inject and uphold the business perspective in the product development work. The Product Owner connects the worlds of (1) product management and the business side of the organization (think market research, sales, finance, legal, marketing), (2) the user and consumer base and (3) the delivery or development parts of the organization.

Connecting those worlds includes engaging with them to assure that all product management aspects and the wider business perspective are integrated into the actual development. In the other direction it allows the Product Owner to keep stakeholders and product management people up to date on the actual progress, so they can organize or re-organize their work accordingly. Being a connector is not the same as being a bottleneck. Product Owner, not information barrier.

Regardless, the Product Owner is the one person making the final call on the order of the work in the Product Backlog. Product Backlog shows all the work currently envisioned for the product, all work that potentially increases the value that the product delivers. Smart Product Owners show openness for great ideas whatever their source or origin and they gracefully employ skills of development people to convert product ideas and business solutions into requirements. Product Owner, not product dictator.

The Product Owner manages Product Backlog based on the product vision as a longer-term view of the road ahead. A product vision captures why the product is being built and why the product is worthwhile investing in. A product vision helps the Product Owner set or reset specific goals, hopes and dreams, express the expectations and ideas captured in the Product Backlog better and better order the items in the Product Backlog for value.

If anybody wants to know what work is identified and planned for the product, it suffices to look at the Product Backlog, at one artifact only. To understand what is planned for or what is in the product, and why, it suffices to ask the Product Owner, one person only.

Sprint Review is a great opportunity for a Product Owner to learn about the assumed or actual value that the product delivers. At the Sprint Review, (key) stakeholders, the team and (potentially) consumers or (key) users collaborate over what got done and what didn’t get done, what influenced the work and what was the purpose of that work. But value as the overall purpose is a very different driver than volume is. The purpose of Sprint Review is not reporting or justification of the amount of tasks executed and features implemented but sharing relevant information on usage and impact, competition and market trends; feedback that will help optimizing for value in the next Sprint(s). The goal is to collaboratively identify what is the most valuable work to do next for the product. This is evidently captured in the living artifact that Product Backlog is.

There cannot be any doubt that being a Product Owner implies expectations, skills and traits that go beyond those of a traditional requirements engineer, a requirements provider throwing work over the wall to developers or a similar proxy. Product Owner, actually, owns the product and is the owner of the product. Such ownership of a product implies strong organizational adoption of the role. It allows a Product Owner to act like a product-CEO (again, not a product dictator). That accountability cannot be mapped on existing roles or functions, deliverables and meetings. The role simply did not exist in the industrial paradigm.


Note. This article is based on texts that are taken from my current book-in-progress “The House of Scrum” (to be released in 2021).

2 thoughts on “Product Owner. Not the Agile name for project manager or other outdated functions.

  1. Great overview! I Can not wait to read more of your articles.

  2. Loved it Gunther, really value over volume!

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