The Mythical Product Owner

By Andre Kaminski
September 17, 2009

Product Managers must quickly adapt to the Agile methodology, or face becoming sidelined. It is critical to understand the relationship between traditional and new roles within a delivery organization, particularly between the Product Manager and the Product Owner.

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The Scrum Master is responsible for:

  • Facilitating the Scrum process.
  • Removing impediments to sprint and release goals.
  • Enforcing Scrum process rules.

Clearly, both roles are a mixture of traditional product, project, and business analysis roles. But this mixture creates a conflict between internal and external drivers. On one side there is responsibility for big-picture goals of operating and positioning the product in the market. On the other side there is involvement in the daily tactical delivery of the product. Either one of these drivers alone can be a full-time job.


To resolve the conflict, we need to look at underlying assumptions:

  • The Product Owner has enough time to perform both functions.
  • The Product Owner has enough knowledge and skills to handle both functions.

The time constraint is a serious problem. If focusing on the team is a full-time job, how does the Product Owner find time for watching market trends and competitors, building relationships with clients, conducting market research and win/loss analysis, creating business cases and pricing strategies, and maintaining vendor relationships, just to mention a few tasks? Equally important is the question of skills. Someone who is good at marketing may not necessarily be effective at analyzing user stories and scenarios of the application.
Another unresolved issue is the scaling of teams. Scrum works well on smaller projects with 6 to 8 team members. But for larger projects with multiple teams, coordination needs to be structured with ‘Scrums of Scrums’ – daily meetings of key representatives from each team that follow daily Scrum team stand-up meetings. While these meetings are effective for aligning tactical efforts by Scrum Masters, Product Owners need another forum for review, coordination and response planning to ever-changing market conditions.

Product Manager Redefined

Although there is much overlap in the responsibilities of Product Owner and Product Manager, these are clearly not the same roles.

Both roles optimize process, but one role focuses on delivery process (local), while the other role focuses on product strategy and achieving company business goals (global). One function cannot be performed at the expense of the other. In any economy, but especially today’s, it is crucial that the right markets are targeted with the right products at the right time. Therefore, with Agile, we need to have both roles – a Product Manager who is externally focused, and a Product Owner who is oriented toward the team. As well, a strong relationship must exist between the two roles.

The Product Manager role combines the functions of Strategy Champion and Marketing Product Manager. This role is most probably closest to the traditional product management function, although the technical responsibilities move to the Product Owner. The Scrum process still requires participation by The Product Manager.

The Product Owner plays a critical role as a link between the business unit and the delivery team, merging the roles of Technical Product Manager, Business Project Manager and Business Analyst.

The Scrum Master plays the role of traditional Technical Project Manager and Project Leader.

It is important to remember that while this structure represents a transition from traditional roles to an Agile environment, there is also a shift in how the roles cooperate. Particularly, Agile stresses ego-less communication between the team, Scrum Master, Product Owner and Product Manager, and insists on sharing of responsibilities.

Here is a short overview of the project stakeholders and the roles they play in Scrum:



In general, a good match for the position of Product Owner would be a Business Analyst with some project management skills. Scrum changes the traditional role of the Business Analyst; there is no longer a need for large volumes of documentation, because requirements are created just-in-time, as late in the process as possible. These requirements are then communicated and worked out directly with the team. Also, Business Analysts are usually experienced in working with Product Managers and clients.

Large Scale Product Owner Organization

When implementing Scrum in large-scale development projects, ‘Scrum of Scrums’ meetings should occur. These meetings usually follow the daily Scrum team stand-up meetings. The Scrum of Scrums is used for managing and coordinating progress of current iterations. The participants are the Scrum Masters from various teams. It is highly advisable that the Product Owner participates in these meetings as well, in order to understand the activities, relationships, constraints, change impacts, and delivery sequences of related component teams.

In addition, because the Scrum of Scrums is tactically oriented, the Product Owners, together with the Product Managers, should have their own forum to review market conditions and conduct marketing release planning. This meeting should be held on a weekly or biweekly basis.

Conclusion

The Agile methodology does not remove the need for Product Managers. The Product Manager and Product Owner are distinctly different roles. The Product Manager is focused on the external side of product development—visioning, positioning, marketing and operations. The Product Owner plays a critical role as the link between the business unit and the development teams, contributing business perspectives and prioritizing activities through the product backlog.

Since Product Managers do not spend as much time working directly with delivery teams as Product Owners, there must be a constant flow of information between the two. Product Managers need to be made aware of how the development of the product is evolving, but must also provide information about changes that potentially could impact the next iteration or release. Both roles must be able to react and adjust to ever-shifting situations in both worlds–business and development. Quick 15-minute stand-up meetings daily between the Product Manager and Product Owner should be sufficient to satisfy this need. Additionally, both roles need to have periodic—weekly or biweekly—planning sessions to review market conditions, client feedback, suggestions for potential new business opportunities, competitor activities, and so on.

From the perspective of traditional roles in project teams, the closest match to Product Owner is the Business Analyst. The transition of Business Analyst to Product Owner should be fairly straightforward. Both roles are similar in nature, and most Product Managers are already accustomed to working with Business Analysts. Although Agile changes the role of the Business Analyst by removing the requirement for detailed documentation up-front, it does not remove the requirement altogether. Instead, documentation evolves as the development process progresses. This change, therefore, should not produce anxiety about the future marketability of the Business Analyst profession.

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About the Authors

  • Andre Kaminski is Executive Manager and Consultant at Redpoint Management Services – specializing in restoring projects and products that are missing their targets. Andre has over 25 years of experience in IT/IS, working with both large and small companies, and with multinational, geographically dispersed teams. Andre Kaminski is Executive Manager and Consultant at Redpoint Management Services – specializing in restoring projects and products that are missing their targets. Andre has over 25 years of experience in IT/IS, working with both large and small companies, and with multinational, geographically dispersed teams. Andre holds titles of Pragmatic Marketing Certified Product Manager, PMI Project Management Professional and Scrum Alliance Scrum Master. Email Andre at contact@redpointms.com


Categories:  Agile Working with Development


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