Product owners have unique and demanding responsibilities. Unlike a product manager, taking on product owner responsibilities can be challenging, but the role is fundamental to the success of an agile team.
In simple terms, the product owner is responsible for understanding the big picture. They need to focus on the “why” when considering the development of a product. Who’s it for? What’s the value? In the end, product owners have the final word on strategic and tactical product decisions, so their roles and responsibilities are important.
In scrum, product owners are the connector between strategy and implementation/development. This requires a focused mindset and distinct business tools. Since the product owner is typically close to the business side of the organization, they must strive to understand the needs of the stakeholders and the vision for the finished product.
According to Roman Pichler, a leading agile expert and the author of How to Lead in Product Management, ”The ultimate responsibility of a product owner is to ensure that the product creates value for its customers and users, as well as for the company. Think of the product owner as the person who champions the product, who facilitates the product decisions, and who has the final say about the product.” Pichler also says, “This includes if and how feedback is actioned, and which features are released.”
The true measure of a great product owner is to be empowered, knowledgeable, empathetic, available, and decisive. We’ve established a high level overview of the product owner role. Now, let’s break down important product owner responsibilities, authority, and accountabilities.
Of the many product owner responsibilities, the main ones to consider are:
Defining the vision
Managing the product backlog
No matter where a product vision comes from, be it a product manager, interactions with customers, or market research, the product owner is the point person who connects that vision to the development process. A high-level perspective is key to ensure good communication of the vision. Keeping the channels of communication flowing is imperative to aligning that vision with goals.
Handy tool: a product roadmap. A product roadmap shows the strategy and product progression visually to outline the direction. If everyone’s on the same road, they’ll end up heading in the same direction.
Of course, in this analogy, there are often speed bumps and weather issues. But if everyone has the same roadmap to reference, adjusting in a fast-paced environment will keep everything on course.
But what’s the best way to keep things transparent and work flowing? You guessed it; it’s that all-important product backlog.
Agile product owners live in their product backlog. The backlog is a document or environment that POs use to bridge the gap between strategy and development. It’s the conduit for prioritizing products to be developed, keeping clearly expressed items to help reach the product goal, and refining based on feedback from users, customers, and stakeholders.Think of a product backlog as an organized way of taking the vision and putting it into motion.
Handy tool: You can use anything from a white board and sticky notes to one of the online tools, such as Trello or Microsoft Planner. Whichever tool you choose, your task is to keep it organized and simple to prioritize. You should have the ability to see dependencies, invite feedback, and keep things on track.
The Scrum Guide 2020 views the product backlog as the “single source of work undertaken by the Scrum Team.” The product backlog demonstrates the commitment of the team to achieve the product goal, i.e. the target for development. It’s the go-to place where the team finds visibility, transparency, and clarity on the work.
To plan the work to be done each sprint, teams need an idea of their product's overall objective. The product owner’s responsibility therefore is to make that objective clear. Here’s where tasks such as product roadmapping and user stories become important.
Handy tip: Use the following simple sentence structure to start a user story.
As a [ ] === I want to [ ] === So that [ ]
Of course, once the product goal is established through user stories and roadmapping, the big question is where to proceed? Welcome, priorities…
Product owners spend much of their time and focus reviewing the backlog and prioritizing the next steps. By taking this responsibility, the product owner enables the development team to focus on how to implement their tasks at hand.
Priorities can be based on the operation of a product and the complexity of the increments. The goal is to work in short cycles to allow for inspection and adapting. And throughout the process, the product owner is there to keep an eye on the progress.
As a product owner, you will need to be present and engaged. Along with the scrum master, who helps the scrum team members enhance the usage of the scrum framework to streamline processes, you will help your team thrive by participating in daily scrums, sprint planning, sprint reviews, and retrospectives.
Tip: Agile Leader Melissa Pickering recommends hosting a monthly stakeholder meeting that brings together all the people who may not be able to make it to the reviews every sprint (or for teams that have external customers, have a monthly internal meeting separate from regular reviews.
Of course, be prepared for people coming to you with ideas. This is where the key product owner responsibility of saying “no” comes into play.
Okay, this isn’t a documented product owner responsibility, but it is imperative. Successful product owners, as mentioned, have the ability to see the big picture. With that comes the great responsibility of protecting the team (and product). And frankly, sometimes that means saying no – or better yet, “not now.”
We’ve gone through many responsibilities that a product owner is faced with. The product owner role requires a strong understanding of these responsibilities, and, more importantly, these skills and personality traits.
Scrum Alliance members can take the next step with the Learning Journey course: Deliver More Value as an Authoritative Product Owner. The learning material covers an array of subjects for you to grow your skills.
Not a member? Please see our collection of articles with tips and advice for product owners.
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