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Agile: Product Owner

What is a Product Owner?

How exactly do we define the role of product owner? It’s one of the most hotly debated roles in product development. There’s even a debate as to whether the role belongs in product management at all.

Since its inception as part of the Scrum framework for software development, the role of a product owner has taken on many different and conflicting definitions. If you peruse the Internet for an explanation of the product owner role, you’ll find descriptions such as the following:

Product Owner Definition 1:
A tactical member of the product development team. They attend daily Scrum meetings and prioritize the backlog. They are expected to ensure the developers are working efficiently and on the right items.

Product Owner Definition 2:
A strategic role responsible for representing the interests of the customer for the development team. Their role is to ensure that there is always a user advocate involved in development meetings.

Product Owner Definition 3:
A product manager assigned to oversee sprints. They are expected to be accessible to the development team if they need help or have questions.

So, which definition is correct? The perhaps unsatisfying answer is that there is no universally accurate job description for a product owner. Some companies treat the role as tactical and task-focused—essentially a development ringleader moving the team through its to-do list.

In other companies, product owners are more strategic. The role involves liaising between the product manager’s vision and the development team charged with executing that vision. In this environment, the product manager—who is perhaps too busy with all of the other responsibilities of being a product manager—communicates the strategic vision to the product owner, who then works closely with development to ensure they carry out that vision correctly.

Can a Product Manager Be a Product Owner?

If you’re inclined to view a product owner less like a taskmaster and more strategically—as a user advocate during the development process, as the communicator of the product team’s strategy, etc.—you can see that the product owner’s responsibilities could be part of the product manager’s role.

Indeed, an effective product owner in an agile development environment will need to be able to articulate strategic goals. In other words, the product owner will need to have some legitimate product management skills. For example, the ability to communicate clearly across different departments and excellent listening skills.

This is why, under some circumstances, a product manager can also serve as the product owner. But for reasons we’ll describe below, this isn’t always possible. In these cases the organization will need a dedicated product owner.

When to Separate Product Owner and Product Manager Roles

If you are a product manager with a company that’s relatively small, or you manage only a single product (or a small family of similar products), you might be able to perform double-duty as your development team’s product owner.

But because product management encompasses a far more sweeping set of responsibilities, you might simply not have the time to be the product owner as well—or at least not do so as effectively as your dev team will need you to.

If you’re managing a handful of large, complex products, each with its own dedicated team of developers, you probably won’t be able to make yourself as accessible at all times to all of those dev teams, as a true product owner will need to. There’s just too much else to do in your role as a product manager—communicating with your executive stakeholders; conducting market research; meeting with your marketing, sales and customer success teams; etc.

Product Owners Need Time

Which brings us to the one thing every good product owner needs: Time.

To be truly effective in the role, a product owner must make a commitment to the development team that she will be available to them at all times during their sprint (or whatever format their development process takes). That means attending all of the meetings, even the daily Scrums. It means being available to review and discuss all of the user stories on the team’s to-do list. And it means always being reachable at any point during development to answer questions.

As you can see, there is some overlap between a product manager and a product owner, but they serve two very different functions. And as the organization scales and its product portfolio broadens, the product owner will eventually need to be a dedicated position.

And will that position report to product or to development? Well, that’s still open for debate.