A Product Owner’s Role in a Product Organization

Product owners play a crucial role in “by-the-book” Agile scrum, while product managers are largely absent. In practice, however, both often coexist. Things can get a bit fuzzy without clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and the seams may fray.

This article explores the product owner role and how it fits into the broader product team.

The product owner’s role

The product owner role was born in Agile scrum, a process initially created to deliver software more quickly by giving the product development team more autonomy in exchange for frequent releases that increase customer value.

According to scrum.org, “The Product Owner is accountable for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Scrum Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.”

Product owners have the following key responsibilities:

  • Ensure the product strategy and vision continually guides the product development team’s execution
  • Manage and prioritize the backlog
  • Oversee scrum development stages and participates in refinement, planning, and review
  • Represent the voice of the customer
  • Communicate and liaise with stakeholders and product development
  • Determine and be accountable for product progress

However, examining the product owner role in a silo is a little like flying over France but only seeing Paris. The job depends on all the other players in the scrum process and the overall product organization.

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Product owners in the wild

Since Agile’s introduction in the mid-1990s, this rapid, iterative development process has spread to many industries. The specifics of each product owner’s job gets shaped by the company. Moreover, the number of products during its growth phase also impacts its role. ProductPlan observes product owner roles falling into three broad categories–the Tactician, the Strategist, and the Product Manager.

The Tactician works closely with the development team, often in an embedded fashion. They attend every scrum meeting and prioritize the backlog. Moreover, they work closely with the developers to resolve these issues. Their role also entails ensuring that the development focuses on the proper work. This allows the team to maximize efficiency and productivity. He manages the product backlog, ensuring that every story has a clear description, definition of done, and appropriate priority based on an established product roadmap.

The Strategist takes a higher level view. They represent the voice of the customer. Moreover, they meet with marketing, sales, and support stakeholders to ensure clear communication keeps flowing and expectations are met. They always keep this question in the foreground, “How will this affect the customer? What will a customer think about this choice? What are the needs of the customer?”

And sometimes, the product owner’s role acts as the product manager, while in other cases, the product manager also fills in as a product owner. This often occurs in smaller companies or those with a narrower product scope. As the company and the product mature, the product manager gets busier working on pricing, conducting market research, or managing a launch. Their analysis illuminates the need for a dedicated product owner.

Where does the product owner fit into the product team?

It’s important to note that traditional scrum envisions a flat development team without a product manager. However, many organizations operate in a hybrid environment with product owners and product managers. This typically results in some overlap between definitions and actual responsibilities.

In organizations without product managers, the product owner may also be tasked with developing the vision and strategy. They can then communicate that to the rest of the organization, including senior management. But when there’s a blend of hierarchical product management and a flat scrum organization, how does a product owner collaborate and interact with the other folks on the product team?

The product owner and the product manager

The product owner and product manager roles have the most potential overlap and, therefore, the most confusion. The interplay may vary. However, the product manager sets the product vision and strategy. They achieve this through meeting with customers, market research, and developing the roadmap.

The product owner then works with the product manager to understand the product strategy and vision. Yet, the customer and market insights also shape the roadmap. Armed with this understanding, the product owner then uses this knowledge to build, manage, and prioritize the backlog, ensuring the resulting product reflects the product vision.

The product owner and development

In this context, the product owner’s role represents the product vision and strategy, while the development team builds a product embodying that vision and strategy. The development team decides on methods and tactics, while the product owner prioritizes the work. The product owner also determines what is done for each story and holds ultimate accountability for the deliverable.

Product owners must be maximally available to the development team. Their job is to answer any product questions from development since the product manager lacks availability and familiarity with the in-progress implementation details. A product owner well versed in the product vision and strategy keeps the process moving forward efficiently. They avoid unwanted delays and ensure the product team remains aligned.

The product owner and product operations

Product operations is an emerging and valuable role for the product team and another resource for product owners. Product operations typically own the product stack, set standards and policies for using those tools, and set requirements for how data gets delivered to product operations for aggregation and reporting.

The Product Owner and the Business Analyst

The product owner may not interact extensively with the business analyst. However, their paths do cross. For example, suppose the product strategy places value on offering a cloud-based solution that works equally well in the Google Cloud, AWS, and Microsoft Azure. In that case, the product owner might want to know the percentage of existing customers operating in each environment to better prioritize development efforts.

The business analyst is often the right person to manage data about customer environments, mainly when it involves prioritization rather than a strategic product decision.

When hiring a product owner isn’t a good idea

With product owners playing such a critical role on the product team and in the Agile framework, why should organizations think twice about posting a product owner job?

It turns out that many businesses find the best product owners already exist within their organizations. The most successful product owners deeply and intimately know the product, the customers, and the target markets, as well as the roles and personalities of the existing players.

While a newly hired product owner can grow that knowledge over time, finding a candidate in-house can accelerate how quickly they come up to speed and add value. Plus, it’s a great career path for engineers, support specialists, and others seeking a move into the product side of the organization.

Additionally, the product team must evaluate whether a new or additional product owner makes the best use of their available headcount.

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