Why does a product owner need it ?

Product Owner (PO for short) is one of three roles in the Scrum Framework. In this post, we describe in detail what it means to be PO. We talk about the most important tasks of a PO and the qualities and skills it needs to master it successfully. We give examples of typical challenges in this activity and typical dysfunctions of an organization that may arise around this role.

The main goal of a product owner can be summed up very briefly: it is to maximize the value of the work of the development teams. Only he or she has the power to determine what is being developed.

Why does a product owner need it?

Some many individuals and organizations have a legitimate interest in the results of development work. We call them all stakeholders. These include customers, users, leaders, managers, partner companies and many more. The stakeholders have fundamentally different power to determine what should happen to the product. But they all have their own goals and are not only committed to the product. The Product Owner is the only person who is only committed to the success of the product and also the only person with the authority to decide what is being developed.

The following video shows very clearly what happens if there is no real PO. Maybe they know such situations from their work practice. We have often observed similar developments.

The Product Backlog – A Most important tool

The product backlog is the main tool of a PO. It is an ordered list of all work packages (entries) planned for the future. It represents the current plan for the future work of the development team. The order (and therefore priority) of the entries in the Product Backlog is ultimately determined only by the Product Owner.

For the Product Backlog to perform its function, the development team works only on the work packages from the Product Backlog and does not accept direct requests from other stakeholders. All stakeholders are always called upon to voice their ideas, wishes, comments, etc., and thereby influence the product backlog. The Product Backlog is always visible and understandable for all stakeholders.

Characteristics Authority

The most important characteristic of a product owner is the sole authority over the “what” to decide for the development team. At the same time, a good PO is by no means a despot that does not listen to anyone and only follows its own ideas. That would actually be a quick path to ruin. A good PO usually follows the suggestions of his colleagues, but when it matters, everyone knows that only he can decide. Often, a good product owner is a high-level decision-maker in a company, such as the head of product development or the CEO.

Typical challenge – take supervisors:

In most cases, a Product Owner, in addition to customers and users, has supervisors within the company, such as the CEO. And even if a CEO takes over the role of the PO, he often has investors to whom he regularly reports. So there are always people who could theoretically say what to do.

Sole authority means that a Product Owner does not have to follow the suggestions of his supervisors, especially when it comes to ordering entries in the Product Backlog. To maintain this authority requires a lot of trust at the beginning and continuous cultivation of this trust during the work. How fitting that we work iteratively in Scrum and therefore regularly show results and, if necessary, change our focus.

Typical dysfunction – no authority:

One of the most common dysfunctions we find in companies is a product owner with no authority. Then, in all rudimentary decisions, he has to call a committee together or change his decisions over and over again, because other people actually decide. The consequences can be seen in the video above. Also, it is a very unpleasant condition for the person and the developer.

Entrepreneurial approach

A great product owner thinks and acts like an entrepreneur. Current research describes this approach with the word: effectuation. It is a different logic with which decisions are made. It starts from the assumption that the future is unpredictable and focuses on the possible in the present and the exploitation of opportunities.

In any case, a good PO is an economically affine and economically thinking person. He has an affinity to the domain of customers, users and, if necessary, other stakeholders.

Typical dysfunction – “technical” product owner

We often see companies introduce the function of a “technical” PO. In fact, a product owner only needs to be as “technical” as his users or customers are. Technical decisions regarding implementation are made in Scrum by product developers.

Typical causes of companies’ need for a “technical PO” is that there are internal development teams that can not provide visible functionality themselves and need someone to manage their tasks. The introduction of the “technical PO” function usually aggravates and institutionalizes the problem instead of remedying it.

One person as a product owner per product

Here is a quote from the Scrum Guide :

“The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog.”

Why is it important that the PO is exactly one person? Counter question: Who is authorized to make the final decision on the order, if there are two or more POs?

And what happens to many development teams for a product? Again Scrum Guide:

“Multiple Scrum Teams often work together on the same product. One Product Backlog is used to describe the upcoming work on the product.”

Even then, there is only one product owner. He can delegate tasks to one or more other people. He can be helped a lot. Structurally, however, he is the only person with the final decision authority on the order of entries in the Product Backlog.


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