The agile product owner is one of the key entities of the agile development process. The Agile Manifesto was created back in 2001 as a way to streamline the software development process and it has transformed into a complete approach to development. Today, 70% of organizations have successfully incorporated the agile approach.
Why do organizations prefer using the agile methodology?
Because agile projects are 28% more successful than their counterparts as agile projects focus on people, working prototypes, customer collaboration, and responding to change. The product owner plays a critical role in the agile process who is primarily responsible for maximizing the product value.
This article covers everything on agile product owner, what exactly an agile product owner does, what are the key duties and responsibilities, and what makes a product owner such an important role?
Table of Contents
What is an Agile Product Owner?
An agile product owner is a person responsible for maximizing the value of the products that are developed by the agile development team. He plays a vital and central role in the product development process by interacting with several departments and teams including customers and then communicating the same to the development team:
The product owner processes the feedback and prioritizes it (known as product backlog) for the development team. He gathers user stories and communicates these to the team members, and he has to manage the backlog. Understanding customer needs, prioritizing them, and communicating the same to the development team is what an agile product owner does.
In doing so, a product owner has to take on several roles including (but not limited to) market analyst, business analyst, product manager, product designer, project manager, and others:
A product owner, in general, can take up to 6 different roles:
- The agile product owner owns the product completely and does everything it takes to maximize the value it delivers
- As a feature owner who is responsible for a specific product feature or its capability. For example, managing the checkout process on an ecommerce website
- A component owner is one who is responsible for overlooking a specific architecture building block
- The platform owner who is responsible for platform management
- The SAFe product owner who owns the complete product details
- The portfolio owner manages a set of products that are mostly related.
The idea is to develop a product that is of high-standard and delivers exceptional value to the end-users.
Scrum Product Owner vs. Agile Product Owner
Is agile product owner and scrum product owner the same?
Short answer: Yes.
Scrum is a subset of the agile framework. It is a lightweight framework that is used to generate value. Scrum framework is a 4-step process:
- Product owner orders product backlog
- The scrum team does one task at a time quickly which is known as Sprint
- The stakeholders along with the scrum team analyze the output and tweak if necessary
The Scrum Guide defines the product owner as:
“The product owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the scrum team.”
The product owner, in this case, is called a scrum product owner who owns the product fully (like an agile product owner). The role of a ‘product owner’ in both an agile process and scrum process remains the same: To own the product and maximize its value.
When the organization follows the scrum methodology, the product owner is known as a scrum product owner and in the case of an agile framework, the product owner is known as the agile product owner. The role and duties of the product owner remain the same irrespective of the process organization is following (scrum vs. agile).
What Does an Agile Product Owner Do?
An agile product owner has to deal with several different aspects of product management since he/she is the one who owns the product in its entirety. According to the scrum guide, the product owner is accountable for product backlog that includes:
- Developing and communicating product goal
- Creating and communicating product backlog
- Ordering product backlog items
- Making the product backlog transparent and understandable.
The product owner can delegate these tasks to others but he/she is the one who is accountable for these tasks.
Let’s look at the main tasks that a product owner has to do:
1. Developing and Communicating Product Goal
One of the primary things that an agile product owner has to do is define goals for the product and its development. The product owner collaborates with all the stakeholders to develop a product vision and define product objectives and goals.
Having clear goals ensures that the team members have a cohesive understanding of what is expected from them. The agile product development team can easily distract from its main objective due to the flexibility of the approach. With such a fast-paced development process, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the goals.
The product owner also defines the vision of the product that defines the long-term journey of the product. ‘Welcome changing requirements…’ is one of the 12 principles of agile product development that means the development team must not hesitate from the quickly changing customer requirements. And when changes are constant, having a clear vision is of utmost importance.
In the absence of a vision, the product will fail to evolve and deliver value after a certain time. The developers, in this case, will continue iterating the product and it might lose its original form after hundreds and hundreds of iterations based on customer feedback.
The agile product owner ensures that the product doesn’t lose its form and this can only be done if he/she has a clear vision and product philosophy. The product owner develops the complete product development journey and communicates it to the development team and stakeholders.
2. Product Backlog Management
One of the key tasks that an agile product owner has to do is the management of product backlog. According to the Scrum Guide, a product backlog is an ordered list of tasks that the team needs to perform for product improvement. Each task in the backlog is a standalone iteration that is performed by the agile (or scrum) team.
It is the responsibility of the product owner to refine and breakdown product backlog items, rearrange them, change ordering, adding details and description, converting larger items into smaller items, and splitting and merging backlog items:
The product owner has to sort backlog items based on a set criterion that is based on priority, risk, value, or need. The sorting of the items and refining them so that the agile team can work on each item is the responsibility of the product owner. He/she also ensures that the requirements and description of each backlog item are clear.
Here is how the ordering of the product backlog items is done:
The items that are ready for the next Sprint (defined as one iteration of the development cycle in scrum and agile development). Sprint has a fixed length that is repeated over and over again:
The fixed duration of the sprint ensures that the development is predictable and the product owner knows when the product will be available. The efficiency of the product owner is linked to the efficiency of the development team. It all comes down to how quickly and smartly the scrum product owner orders and refines backlogs for the development team.
Transparency is one of the three pillars of scrum theory. The product owner must ensure transparency which means that the processes and work must be visible to all the stakeholders including those who are performing it (the development team) and those who will receive it (client and/or end-user).
There are several techniques a product owner can use to ensure transparency:
- Work closely with the development team and other stakeholders
- Encourage and promote feedback culture
- Share progress with all the stakeholders at each development stage
- Communicate and collaborate with the development team, the Scrum Master, and all the stakeholders regularly
- Empower individuals
- The development work is shared with everyone in the organization.
Here is a transparency evaluation template that helps an agile product owner evaluate the level of transparency:
Transparency is essential for several good reasons:
- Better decision-making
- Risk reduction
- Product value.
The scrum product owner is responsible for ensuring transparency and it is one of the core tasks that he/she has to do.
4. Need Anticipation
The agile product owner role doesn’t just refine and prioritize product backlog rather he/she is responsible for tweaking project scope, budget, time duration, and objectives by anticipating project needs. Sticking with the initial scope isn’t mandatory and a smart product owner stays in contact with all the stakeholders throughout the process (including end-user) and based on feedback, he/she must change the project scope.
Being the owner of the product, he/she is in charge and must make sure that the final product is of the highest value – and this can be done with proactive need assessment based on feedback from the end-user, client, stakeholders, and the development team.
A product owner who sticks with the initial requirements and doesn’t bother (or is reluctant) to change the scope will most likely fail to deliver a high-value product.
5. Progress Evaluation
Simply managing the product backlog and sending tasks to the development team isn’t enough. The product owner role owns the product and is responsible to evaluate project progress. Ideally, he/she has to monitor and evaluate progress after every iteration (sprint).
It is the scrum product owner’s call if the development team needs to work on the next iteration or need to discuss project details again. Refining and prioritizing backlog items must be driven by the overall project progress. If things aren’t moving in the right direction, it is the agile product owner’s job to seek feedback from the scrum team and ensure they understand the project and its requirements.
The holistic project evaluation is what an agile product owner does.
Agile Product Owner Skills
A product owner as the product manager has to wear several hats and this requires a lot of skills. One day he/she is busy with the developers explaining project requirements, the next day he/she is conducting phone interviews with the end-users collecting feedback, and the next morning he/she is taking notes in the stakeholders meeting.
The skillset of a scrum product owner is ever-evolving and it includes business-specific skills, development skills, leadership and management skills, and more:
It isn’t all about hard and technical skills rather soft skills are way more crucial for a product owner. For example, a product owner with poor communication skills won’t be able to do a decent job even if he/she has top-notch development and user experience skills.
A product owner must possess a mix of hard skills, technical skills, and soft skills.
Agile Product Owners Do Everything for Product Value
Yes, a good agile product owner does everything to maximize product value. A great product owner won’t compromise on the product value. To be a successful agile product owner, you must be willing to learn and grow your skill set. You never know what new course or certification you might have to take to complete your next project.
Be prepared, be willing to learn and evolve, and be ready to do whatever it takes to maximize product value. That’s all that an agile product owner is all about.
If you are new to product ownership and are looking to break into a great product owner role, we recommend taking our Product Owner Certification Course, where you will learn how to guide PM projects using scrum foundations, how to lead scrum teams, and land a great product owner job.