The Scrum Team: What is a Product Owner?

Oct 12, 2019

The Product Owner is a key role in a Scrum team and is accountable the success or otherwise of the product. A Product Owner will interact with the customers or users, the Scrum team, and other key stakeholders. Ideally a domain expert with a good understanding of the market, product, users / customer, the PO will fulfill the following duties.

Define the vision

Product owners communicate the vision of what is to be developed. They manage the stakeholders, including the sponsor, business managers, sometimes the customers, and the Scrum team to ensure the vision is aligned with their objectives.

This vision should manifest itself in the product backlog and be understood by the Scrum team. The backlog is a list of features or pieces of value, typified as user stories that describe the product and will be managed by the Product Owner.

It doesn't have to be software though, Scrum can be applied to non software development projects.

The Golden Circle

For a really great product, understand why the product is needed, not what it is.

The Golden Circle explains why this is so important and is actually made up of 3 concentric circles, each defining how people relate to you or your business.

Similar to the 7Ps, at the core is the why, then the how, and on the outside of the circle is the what. This translates into:

  • Motivation (why)
  • Process (how)
  • Product (what)

Let's think of this in terms of insurance which for many people is an uninspiring product. An insurer might create products which it thinks are needed in the market. It might say that it has lots of great products to cover your insurance needs (what), and it's easy to buy from its website (how) so go ahead, see what we have and buy it. Is that going to tempt you to buy?

How about we think of the why? Let's start again. As an insurer, we believe in making life easier and supporting people in times of stress. Because of this belief, our product teams craft great products which give you peace of mind. Our product happens to be insurance.

This doesn't just apply to getting people to connect with a product. Its how that product is created in the first place. People buy ideas and this is another way of building highly motivated teams that create great products. Give people a reason for what they do. A good Scrum Master makes people think about the why.

People don't buy into what you do, they buy into the belief; the why you do it.

Manage the product backlog

The backlog is effectively a prioritised To-Do list. The Product Owner will:

  • Set the order of each of the items / user stories in the backlog to meet changing priorities, and time constraints.
  • Define and make the backlog transparent, understood by all.
  • Ensure that each member of the Scrum team (the Development team) understands the backlog. This is critical because the backlog will constantly change. The developers in this context are those responsible for developing the user story, not the system development as done by coders.

Consisting mostly of user stories, the backlog can includes defects and tasks.

The backlog isn’t a static list though. It is a living list that should be continually updated as business needs change. Because it will frequently change, the Product Owner must make the list available to all stakeholders (particularly the Scrum team) to ensure optimal outcomes. This is also where the Scrum Master can help.

Just-in-time story elaboration

Most backlog items exist as user stories for implementation. Any team member can write stories and acceptance criteria though the Product Owner has the responsibility for maintaining this flow. Two sprints worth of stories is a good number to have in the team backlog at all times as more than this will create a queue which may go stale. Less than this may reduce the value generated in each sprint.

Acts as the primary contact

The Product Owner links the stakeholders and Scrum Team. They need to communicate to ensure that there is buy-in from stakeholders on all major decisions and provide clear instruction to the Scrum Team (the Devs).

Product Owner in a nutshell

An excellent video to understand what is a Product Owner.

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