By design, agile organizations are highly egalitarian. Every person in the room gets a voice and is empowered to drive business value. Still, all organizations recognize the need for a role that synthesizes and prioritizes tasks in a manner that drives projects toward their maximum value. In agile, that role belongs to the Product Owner.

The Product Owner’s chief responsibility is to maximize the business value of the team. They accomplish this by making sure that all have a deep understanding of the customer’s needs while scheduling the work to be completed in a manner that delivers predictable business value regularly.

Let’s look at how Product Owners first work with stakeholders to refine their vision, ensure the vision is correctly captured on the product backlog, and finally, work with development to deliver the product.

The Product Owner as Conductor

When stakeholders conceive a new product, nothing truly exists. The stakeholder is willing to invest in an idea to bring it to fruition. Creating the tangible from the intangible is the first critical role of the Product Owner.

In the earliest stages, the Product Owner is tasked with gaining a deep understanding of the end-user, the challenges they’re seeking to overcome, and the benefits they will achieve by doing so. They engage with product managers and quantify how each facet of the product will contribute to its overall impact, as well as quantifying the overall business value from each sprint.

Agile is intentionally light on documentation for the simple reason that pivots can and will be part of the development process. Still, at this stage of the project, the Product Owner must take the time to identify significant areas of business value that are being targeted and the first critical product features that will help bring the product to life.

Finally, features are translated into user stories conveying user value, and those stories are prioritized accordingly on the product backlog.

The Product Owner as Refiner

A common refrain in agile is that the Product Owner “owns” the backlog. The backlog consists of work that needs to be completed for a given product (outside of the current sprint). Both the backlog content and prioritization are the responsibility of the Product Owner.

Above, we discussed the Product Owner’s role in defining user stories. These user stories are prioritized according to the agreed-upon business value delivered by each.

The backlog is exposed to the development team during critical refinement meetings. Story pointing is used as a proxy to determine the relative effort required to accomplish user stories during these meetings.

Unlike traditional waterfall development, however, the Product Owner continues to interface with stakeholders frequently. They ensure that the backlog’s priority is constantly updated according to changing market conditions and stakeholder desires while communicating the team’s reflections of efforts required for stories to be completed.

In this manner, the Product Owner is responsible for ensuring that all parties are aware of what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and the value and effort of the work to be completed.

The Product Owner as Facilitator

While Product Owners expend much energy on the backlog, they also have a critical role during the Daily Stand-up familiar to all experienced agile practitioners. After all, the Daily Stand-up is where business value is created, according to the user stories previously defined and refined.

During the sprint, the Product Owner helps to facilitate the pace of the sprint. Inevitably, questions about user stories will arise and need to be clarified. Options will come up, and decisions will need to be made. Because the Product Owner has spent much time interacting with stakeholders to refine and prioritize the stories that make it into the sprint, they are the ones who will now make any decisions required to keep progress moving forward.

In fact, in organizations where Product Owners and Product Managers exist, a critical delineation is that the latter will spend more time out of the office interfacing with current and potential customers. In contrast, the former should be accessible to team members the majority of the time, in the interest of continuing forward momentum.

Product Owners are considered to be part of the Scrum team. From providing peer review to performing acceptance tests, they share an equal role as other team members to ensure work gets completed within the sprint.

Finally, and crucially, Product Owners will lead sprint reviews and participate in retrospectives. This provides them with the ability to ensure stakeholders are pleased with the progress of the team and that the team is comfortable with the process required to complete the work.

What the Best Product Owners Have in Common

When the role of the Product Owner is fully understood, it becomes obvious that what the best Product Owners have in common is both a deep curiosity and passion for the business as well as a focus on ensuring that the Scrum team is harmonious and productive.

At Ascendle, our Product Owners are the linchpins of our organization and are seasoned technology and business veterans who love their work and their teammates. If you’d like to learn more about them – or if you’d like to consider joining us as one of them – please click here to see our most recent job posting, and see if you might be a good fit for our team!  Maybe you have what it takes!

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