The product owner is a critical role in Scrum. They are the one that translates the needs of the users, customers, and stakeholders into a product vision, roadmap, and backlog that maximizes the value of their product.
However, how do we know if we have the perfect product owner, and what does it even mean to be a perfect product owner? Below are five key attributes to look for in an ideal product owner:
Bandwidth is best explained via a story. Years ago, I was a ScrumMaster at an organization where the Senior Vice President of Something Important, we’ll call her Jesse, wanted to be our product owner. The Scrum Development Team and I were initially quite excited because we had a great relationship with Jesse, and Jesse was very high up in the organization. With Jesse as our product owner, we felt that we could get a lot accomplished. However, we quickly realized that this was not working as well as we would have liked because Jesse was never around. For example, we were building out a new part of the website and the team needed to meet with Jesse to review some of the needs. Jesse said, “Absolutely. I’m about to get on a plane to New York but I’ll be back in three days. Let’s meet then.” At this point, we set a 45-minute meeting on the day of Jesse’s return, to which she showed up 20 minutes late. All of this is a bandwidth issue. Bandwidth: having enough time and capacity to work with the Scrum team, manage the product, and work with the users, customers, and stakeholders.
There are essentially two ways to resolve this issue:
- Free up the product owner’s time so they have more time for product ownership
- Find a new product owner
Since Jesse was so high up in the organization, paring down other parts of her job wasn’t really feasible, so we went with option two: find a new product owner. Jesse had a direct report, David, who Jesse thought could do a great job. So, what if Jesse had approached David and said, “David, I want you to be my proxy product owner. You do all the day-to-day stuff, just make sure to run all decisions through me.” If we had gone down that route, not only would we not have addressed the original issue, but we would have made it worse by adding yet another layer into this product ownership. So, Jesse did not do that, but Jesse approached David and said:
“David, I’d like to talk to you about being the product owner. Your product, your team. As long as you’re aligned with the product vision and roadmap, you run with it. I’ll take a step back and be more of product champion or product sponsor and we’ll periodically synch up to make sure we’re aligned.”
This is power: the authority to manage the stakeholder needs, order and refine the product backlog and product needs, and the ability to accept the product increments. Whenever we hear terms like proxy product owner, delegate product owner, de-facto product owner, vendor product owner, stand-in product owner, analyst/product owner, or any variations such as those, we begin to wonder if they really have the power to be an effective product owner.
What if David was a brand-new hire to the organization and had no idea about the product? That certainly would have been a big risk. Fortunately, David had been with the organization for more than six years on the business side and had a deep understanding of the product. That is knowledge: having a deep understanding of the product, who the users and stakeholders are, what they find valuable, and what the organization’s goals are for the product.
Suppose David said, “I don’t want to do this job, I’m not interested!” Yet, he was forced to do the job - how well would that work? You would essentially have a disinterested absentee product owner. David would say things like, “I don’t have time to go to this meeting, you guys figure it out,” “It’s all high priority, get it all done,” and “I don’t have time to review it now, just show it to me at the end.” However, in this case, David was very excited about being the product owner and to work with the team rolling out this product. Interest: having a strong desire to be the product owner and being able to maximize the value of the product.
What if the team approached David trying to understand the goals of our releases and David said, “I don’t know, where do you think the product should be going?” That is not product ownership. In this case, David had a strong vision for the product and was very excited about bringing this vision to the users. David was so excited and engaged with the vision that he was able to get the team excited and engaged with the vision, and an engaged team produces a better product. Vision: having a great understanding of what the product is, where it should be going, and the goals for the product.
The Perfect Product Owner
Thus, the five key attributes to seek in a product owner are:
- Bandwidth: Having enough time to work with the Scrum team, manage the product, and work with the users, customers, and stakeholders.
- Power: Having the authority to manage the stakeholder needs, order and refine the product backlog and product needs, and the ability to accept the product increments.
- Knowledge: Having a deep understanding of the product, who the users and stakeholders are, what they find valuable, and what the organization’s goals are for the product.
- Interest: Having a strong desire to be the product owner and being able to maximize the value of the product.
- Vision: Having a great understanding of what the product is, where it should be going, and the goals for the product.