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If there’s a more widely misunderstood job title than “product owner,” we’d like to see it. As a professional in the product field, you might have some idea of what a product owner does. However, even your understanding of the role might be incorrect—more than on this below. But imagine what the title must sound like to someone entirely outside the product world.
Teacher/plumber/airline pilot: So, what do you do?
PO: I’m a product owner.
Teacher/plumber/airline pilot: Me too! I mean, what do you do for a living?
PO (smiling): Yeah, I get this a lot. That’s actually my job title.
Teacher/plumber/airline pilot: Someone pays you to own products? Wow. I’m in the wrong line of work.
Even the job title product manager, which is also misunderstood, is more intuitive. Managing products? Most people can get a sense of what that role entails. But what does it mean to have a job owning a product?
Part of the confusion is that the product owner role is relatively new. It originated as part of the Scrum agile framework in software development, which has been around only a couple of decades. As Scrum and agile became more popular, businesses in industries other than software began to adopt the framework, creating jobs for product owners.
But many of these businesses had different ideas of what their product owners should be doing. Today, it’s clear that the product owner is not a universally defined or understood role. Here’s what MT, a product strategy professional with an IT conglomerate, told us about product owners:
“The roles and responsibilities of product owners come from two sources: how the organization views this role and how to PO himself/herself defines the role and delegates to the team. Depending on the company’s size, size of the product team, capability, character, or PPO, this may vary significantly. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”
As we’ve written here at ProductPlan, there are at least three widespread definitions of the product owner role. In some organizations, the product owner is a tactical member of the development team. In others, the job is more strategic and designed to represent the needs and interests of customers. Other companies assign their product owners to oversee development sprints.
We view the role as combining all of these responsibilities above, along with several others. Here’s how ProductPlan defines product owner:
The product owner bridges the gap between product strategy and development. They are usually responsible for the product backlog, organizing sprints, and are expected to answer questions from developers as needed. Compared to the product manager’s strategy-focused role, the product owner generally takes on more tactical duties.
Now that we’ve defined what a product owner is let’s dig deeper into their key roles and responsibilities.
We list this first not because it’s necessarily the most critical product owners’ task, but because it is typically where they’ll spend a lot of their time.
But whether or not an organization follows the agile sprint framework, its product owners will spend much of their time and focus reviewing the backlog of development tasks and prioritizing what the developers should take on next. This helps make sure that the team executes according to the product management team’s strategic goals and priorities.
When we stated above that product owners manage the backlog, we did not mean they simply moved existing user stories and other task-level details around the backlog. Product owners must be more proactive than that. In many cases, they are responsible for drafting (or at least refining) these stories into tasks that the development team can execute on.
Here is how Selina M., a product owner for Quest Software, describes her role:
“Product owners take initiatives from the product manager, break them down into stories or actionable chunks of value, and work with the engineering team to implement them.”
To be useful in translating their company’s strategic plan into the right execution steps, product owners must understand their market and customer needs.
This often involves working with product managers to learn about what problems they are aiming to solve with the product, what customer needs or desires have informed their product strategy, and what the team will view as product success.
Gaining this high-level knowledge of the market, customer persona, and product strategy helps product owners more effectively perform several of their day-to-day tactical functions, including:
Product managers set the big-picture goals and strategy for their product’s success. The engineering or development teams build the physical (or digital) product. But between these two ends of the product development spectrum, there is a lot of room for interpretation—and misinterpretation.
Product owners act as a bridge to connect the product and development teams. They translate their understanding of the product manager’s vision and what each product’s area is designed to do for its users. This enables them to explain to the dev team the how and the why behind all user stories and other tasks they’re prioritizing.
When they’re working stories and other tasks during a sprint, the development team might be unclear about a particular job assigned to them. They might not understand, for example, why a user story calls to design the product functionality in a particular way. They might also believe they have a faster, more efficient way to build the functionality but aren’t sure if doing so could undermine product management’s strategic goal in some way.
In these instances, the development team should ask the product owner for answers and guidance. Because the company’s development sprints are time-boxed—usually two weeks, or a month at the longest—the team will need these answers quickly.
As you can see, the product owner plays an extremely valuable role in helping an organization bring its products to market successfully. As Quest Software’s Selina M. points out, “As product owners, we add value by prioritizing the right work, at the right times, and making sure everyone on the team is aligned on the reasoning behind that work—to help ensure the continuous delivery of value to our users.”
For a deeper dive into a key responsibility of product owners, read our book…