Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Who makes the Best Product Owner?

In one of my recent articles entitled Who makes the best ScrumMaster?, I discussed the attributes needed to make an effective ScrumMaster and what traditional roles may play the ScrumMaster best. From the feedback, those who can best exemplify the attributes of a ScrumMaster made the best ScrumMaster and it did not appear to be strongly aligned with any particular traditional role.

In this article, the focus is the Product Owner role. Much like the ScrumMaster, the Product Owner role is very important to a successfully running Agile team. In fact as teams consider adopting Agile, who plays the Product Owner is critical to gaining the benefits of Agile due to the importance of identifying customer value and enacting the customer validation activities to ensure we are building something that the customer actually wants.
What are some important attributes of an effective Product Owner? A Product Owner recognizes what customers want and translates their needs into meaningful epics and user stories (aka, requirements). A Product Owner must intuitively adapt requirements (aka, user stories) when customer needs and market conditions change, to ensure what is built and delivered aligns with customer needs. This may sound obvious but the Product Owner must have the wherewithal to ensure that the organization in which the team works in will positively support and welcome change. A Product Owner must have the attributes to be a good voice-of-the-customer (VoC) and communicate the customer needs to the Team so they can build what the customer needs. It can be quite challenging to commit time to customers and team members.  Some attributes that an effective Product Owner must have include:
  • Parsing customer and business problems and turn them into meaningful user stories  
  • Working with sales and marketing to get their ideas into the backlog
  • Establishing a directional Product Roadmap and Product Strategy
  • Understanding the business marketplace
  • Understanding and interacting with the customer domain 
  • Establishing effective Customer validation (e.g., end-of-sprint reviews/demos, alphas, etc.) to ensure you are building a product the customer wants   
  • Understanding that it takes a trusting environment where problems can be raised without fear of blame, retribution, or judgement, with an emphasis of healing, collaboration, and problem solving  
  • Facilitating and influencing the work without coercion, assigning, or dictating
So the question arises, is there a traditional role that plays the Product Owner the best? Let’s examine a few of these roles.

Business Analyst as Product Owner?
What does a traditional Business Analyst (BA) do? A BA is someone who analyzes business needs, works with stakeholders in order to understand their needs, and to recommend solutions that meets these needs. At a deeper level, a BA focuses on eliciting, documenting, and managing requirements. They also act as a liaison between business and technical groups. It is because of the work a Business Analyst already does and in particular their focus on requirements and their liaison role between the business and technical groups that makes them a good candidate for the Product Owner role. A traditional BA would have to gain the experience in working in an Agile manner including the continuous requirements elicitation process (per the sprint cadence) and applying iterative customer validation so skills and experience in these areas would have to be built.

Product Manager as Product Owner?
What does a traditional Product Manager (PM) do? A PM examines the market, the competition, and customer needs and establishes the product direction that is considered valuable to the market and the customers therein. A good PM focuses on the financial considerations including the return on investment (ROI). In addition, the PM is involved in the requirements gathering and management process. It is because of the work a Product Manager already does particularly their focus on what is considered valuable by the customer that makes them a good candidate for the Product Owner role. A traditional PM may not have the experience in working in an Agile manner including a continuous requirements gathering process (per the sprint cadence) and applying iterative customer validation so skills and experience in these areas would have to be built.

Project Manager as Product Owner?
What does a traditional Project Manager (PjM) do? The primary responsibility of a Project Manager is to plan and execute a project from the beginning to closure. A PjM focuses on the project costs, schedule, and scope. A PjM may also help build the project objectives, help manage the requirements management process, manage project risks, issues, and dependencies. While there are some attributes a PjM brings that can help in the Product Owner role, there is very little direct customer focus which is a big part of the Product Owner role so this experience would have to be gained. A PjM may have to unlearn some "assigning work" and "driving the work" as this can inhibit the team's ability to become self-organizing.

Technical Manager as Product Owner?
I have found that some Technical Managers (TM) provide aspects of product ownership to their work. The Technical Manager may get input from Product Managers, Sales, and Marketing and then crafts them into meaningful customer needs.  While there are some attributes a TM brings that can help in the Product Owner role such as crafting a product or service direction, there may be little direct customer focus which is a big part of the Product Owner role. This experience would have to be gained. In addition, a TM will need to break from the "team are my direct reports" mindset and "assigning the work" as this can inhibit the ability for the team to become self-organizing.

Other Roles as Product Owner?
There are other roles that may be considered.  A select example are those in the marketing space (e.g., Market Researcher), service space (e.g., Service Consultant), user or customer experience space (e.g., UX Designer), and entrepreneurs. These are roles that understand the market, customers, and the continuous feedback from the customer.  As organizations have various roles in this capacity, it is worth investigating those current roles that are customer facing and understand how to translate feedback and strategy into user stories. 

IMHO, those who have played either a Business Analyst or Product Manager can become an effective Product Owner. However, anyone who has played a role where they work with customers to collect their needs and then work with teams to build products or solutions that meet those needs can evolve into an effective Product Owner. I would suggest that anyone who becomes a Product Owner (or is interested in doing so) should consider taking Agile Product Owner education, reading related books, and/or gaining guidance in this area through an Agile Coach in order to help them better understand this role and the activities they will need to perform in order to play this role effectively.


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