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Scrum Team Roles - Product Owner

13 Aug 2019

One of the roles on the Scrum team is Product Owner (PO). In this article, we will focus on the PO as a role,  what they do and why their role is so important in both the Scrum framework and the team. A PO is a new role, which means there's no traditional role to compare it to. That's why so many people don't really know what a PO is or what it's supposed to be.

Without further ado, let's have a look at the role of a Product Owner in Scrum team.

What is a PO?

A Product Owner is an individual who's solely responsible for maximizing the value of the product that's being built. How they do it varies based on organizations, individuals and of course, Scrum teams. However, one thing is for certain and that the PO is responsible for ordering the Product Backlog so as to maximize the product's value. 

A Product Owner should be someone with extensive knowledge and understanding of the users, their preferences, needs, expectations and demands. That's why one can safely say that a PO is the key stakeholder within a Scrum team. In addition, anyone from marketing, sales, product management and so on can assume the role of PO. This varies from organization to organization and it depends whether the team is building a commercial software or otherwise. 

What does a PO do?

As mentioned before, the main responsibility of a PO is to prioritize the Product Backlog in order to maximize the value of the end-product. However, that's not all that a PO does within a Scrum team. Contrary to popular belief, a PO doesn't own a product. 

They are just a person who is able to envision what needs to be built and what features should be developed based on their understanding of user needs and the best way to deliver value. A Product Owner is also responsible for conveying that vision to the development team so that they themselves can also understand how to create a high-value product. Here are a few examples of POs responsibilities.

  • Clearly conveying Product backlog items.
  • Prioritizing backlog items in order to achieve goals and missions in the best way possible.
  • Optimizing the Development Team's performance to enhance the value of work they do.
  • Ensuring transparency, visibility and understanding of the Product Backlog to all so that everyone knows what the Scrum team will be working on next.
  • Ensures that members of the development team understand the items within a product backlog to the required level.

Therefore, a PO doesn't go around telling people what to do. Instead, they motivate and encourage the team to achieve a specific goal while the final decision on what to work on and how is up to the team to decide. 

Additional PO responsibilities

A Product Owner remains included in a project throughout the project's lifecycle. In other words, they will provide continuous support to the Development Team as long as it takes. However, during the project's lifecycle, a PO has a number of other responsibilities. 

As an example, a PO acts as a liaison between developers, users, stakeholders and everyone else involved in a project. They gather user and stakeholder feedback on both finished bits of a product, as well as bits that are yet to be developed. They may also gather information about market trends and the overall state of the market, in order to maximize value to the organization and for the end-users. 

They may delegate some of the work to a Scrum Master or collaborate with them to make more strategic decisions. They may represent the will of a committee but the Product Owner is always a single person who has the last say on how a backlog should look like. That's why it's of the utmost importance that the entire organization respects the decisions a PO makes. 

Becoming a PO

As aforementioned, anyone from sales, marketing, product development or any other department can assume the role of a PO, as long as they have the necessary skills and understanding of the users and stakeholders. Even a project manager or a Scrum Master can assume the role if needed. 

However, should someone solely opt for a PO career path, they can receive proper training and certification for the job. As an example, the Scrum Alliance provides both a training course and examination for a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO). On the other hand, also provides both training and examination for their Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO I and II). 

Aside from training and certification, a PO should possess certain individual skills, such as availability, business-savvy and communication skills. In addition, a Product Owner must understand the market, the users, the stakeholders and the people they work with. Communicating messages to different people is essential so that everyone is on the same page. 

The role of a Product Owners is vital to the Scrum Team. A Product Owner can envision the product and have both the organizations and the users' best interest in mind. Their main attribute is helping everyone else see what the product should look like once it's successfully completed.

Product Owner FAQ

1. Should a Product Owner attend Daily Scrum?

The short answer would be yes, but why though? The Product Owner is a member of the team regardless of the fact that their role differs from the rest of the development team. Technically, the Scrum Guide doesn't state that a PO needs to attend the daily Scrum meetings but they should definitely do so. 

The main reason is that even though a PO is not some boss that orders the team around, they should still have insight into the team's progress and provide advice for specific problems. Aside from that, a PO is there to portray business value requirements to the teams, as well as remind them that they're, in fact, a team, to begin with. 

2. What does a Product Owner do during a sprint?

They sit back and eat popcorn while watching the show is not the answer you'll find here, unfortunately. A good PO is entirely engaged throughout the sprint. They provide the team with feedback on how things are supposed to function or look. 

They also facilitate feedback from stakeholders during the sprint, as well as accept new user stories. In other words, a PO ensures that everyone is provided with feedback concerning the Sprint Goal that was mutually defined, beforehand. 

3. What services does a Scrum Master provide to the Product Owner?

A Product Owner is oftentimes a role taken on by someone with non-technical background. That's quite alright since a PO's responsibility is to communicate and define what needs to be done and portray the business value to the development team. 

However, this can become a challenge and a PO will be unable to communicate the vision in a way that will allow the team to understand, estimate or create what's required.

 A Scrum Master can, therefore, step in and help the PO communicate what's needed. Aside from that, a Scrum Master can also help the PO with the Scrum process, as well as help both PO and the development team make the most of Product Backlog items.

4. Should the Product Owner attend the Sprint Retrospective?

A Sprint Retrospective is a meeting that takes after a sprint. It's an opportunity to reflect back on what has been accomplished so far and look for new opportunities to improve. As part of the team, it's essential for a PO to attend these meetings. 

The main reason is that everyone has room for improvement, even the PO. They can strengthen the relationship with the developers in these meetings, improve their own work, emphasize collaboration, test new solutions and so on.

5. What to do if a Product Owner is not available during the sprint?

It's not uncommon for a Product Owner to be away from meetings or during the sprint itself. After all, their role involves communicating with stakeholders, customers, sales teams, marketers etc. They might have to travel somewhere or dedicate their time to other tasks for the sake of the project and the product. 

So, should everyone just wait until the PO is back or what? That can be the case. As a matter of fact, holding out until the PO is back is not uncommon. What's more, a Scrum Master or anyone else from the team may step in to take on the role for the time being, as long as they're part of the team and have a good understanding of the Product Backlog and the product as it relates to the business goals. 

6. What does the Product Owner do if the team cannot complete the accepted stories?

Ideally, the team takes on as much work as they can manage during a Sprint. They are, therefore, able to finish all items on the Sprint Backlog and be ready for the next one. However, sometimes that's not the case and the team is left with a few uncompleted tasks. So what does a PO do in such scenarios? 

Well, the first thing is to determine the reason behind why those items weren't completed, to begin with. Sometimes it's just a strain of bad luck or poor timing, other times there can be more serious issues. Nevertheless, a PO must consult with the team and decide should the sprint split, in order to finish the leftover item or should the item be carried on into the next sprint. It all comes down to how important the item is. 

7. When should the Product Owner update the project plan?

The plan in the Scrum project is the Product Backlog. As mentioned before, a PO communicates with both their team members and other stakeholders. That said, new information and user stories can result in Product Backlog being updated when it's convenient to do so. 

Backlog refinement due to new information is a common practice in Scrum projects. As for any higher-level agile project plan, such as a roadmap, it can also be updated if need be but only after new insights and information are thoroughly analyzed to determine if the new information will indeed affect the bigger picture.  

8. How does the Product Owner prioritize user stories?

Prioritization of user stories is indeed a challenging task for POs. The way POs approach the prioritization depends on the organizational needs, the project, the product and various other factors. You can check out a couple prioritization techniques and tips in our article here

9. What skills are required for a Product Owner?

A Product Owner is an interesting role, to say the least. As with any other role, specific skills are required so that you can do your job efficiently and seamlessly. As an example, you don't need to be tech-savvy or have any technical know-how when it comes to programming, developing or designing. 

However, it can't hurt to be familiar with such things, if only to help you better understand what the team is up against. 

Aside from that, good communication, leadership, conflict-resolving and other soft-skills are very much appreciated for POs. After all, you'll be running back and forth between your team and other stakeholders all the time while trying to ensure that everyone is both happy and well-informed.  

10. Whom does Product Owner consult for value?

One of the Product Owner's responsibilities is to maximize the product's value. However, the word value can be defined in various ways ranging from organization to organization. Therefore, the value can differ based on what the product is or for what purposes it's being created, as well as for whom. In general term, product value represents both the value for the customer and for the organization. 

But back to the question at hand, to whom should a PO turn to when estimating value? The simplest answer would be both the customers and the Scrum team. The fact of the matter is that the PO must focus on both the internal and external value of the product, which means there are always two sides of the coin. 

11. Which positions are good candidates for becoming a Product Owner?

Scrum Guide does not prescribe who should take on the Product Owner role. However, there are certain prerequisites that can help someone assume the role of a PO. As mentioned before, a Product Owner communicates with customers, marketers, managers, sales, developers and numerous other people. Therefore, any background in relevant business operations is good for the PO.

As an example, business analysts, project managers, product managers, technical managers can all become an effective PO. Other roles, such as market researchers, service consultants, UX designers and others can also assume the role of a PO effectively. 

Of course, all of these also have their downsides and you cannot afford to dismiss the personal traits of the person in question as a factor. 

12. How to coach a Product Owner to break down stories?

In many cases, the main responsibility of a Scrum Master is to coach either the entire organization or an individual Product Owner about various things regarding both Agile practices and the Scrum framework. When it comes to breaking down stories, things can become delicate. A Scrum Master must not just coach a PO how to break them down, but also why and when. 

Coaching comes down to finding the best approach that will help a PO understand and utilize strategies that will help them become more efficient and useful. A good example is breaking down epics into smaller user stories. An epic is simply a way to large of a story to be completed in a single sprint, which is why it should be broken down into smaller and easily-approachable stories. 

That said, coach your PO on how to recognize an epic and differentiate it from a larger but still achievable user story. Coach them how to break it down and which strategies to use when doing so, in order to create a list of backlog items that can be completed within a sprint. Finally, coach your PO how to recognize a good opportunity from gathering feedback so they can actually help the team become more productive instead of becoming a burden to them.

13. How much time must a Product Owner spend with the development team?

In a perfect world, the Product Owner would spend the majority of their time with or at least within a short walk from the rest of the Scrum Team. However…

This question is related to what to do if a PO isn't around. Ideally, a PO must strike a balance between spending time with the development team and with other stakeholders. In theory, a PO must be engaged and available to the team when needed. 

However, the "when needed" part depends on the team and their needs. In a lot of cases, PO is available on-demand, whereas in other cases, a PO is around enough of the time with the team to meet the desired commitment required for the delivery of the product. At the end of the day, it's more about the quality of time spent with the team than the quantity that matters the most.