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Agile Success Factors: The Product Owner Role


By Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC

{#/pub/images/ProductOwnerRole.jpg}Scrum, an agile software development process for managing software projects, specifies only three roles: 1) Product Owner; 2) Scrum Master; 3) Developers / Testers

The role of Product Owner is critical however not always fully appreciated.  For years, those of us who develop software have decried the lack of user involvement in our projects.  The same can be said for any major development project no matter what the industry or end product. The role of Product Owner defines a specific set of responsibilities but, in my experience, that role is not often understood or cultivated.  This article is intended to clarify the definition of the role and what is needed to get the most value from the Product Owner.  There are various descriptions of the role, but I will summarize them below as follows:


3 Success Factors For Product Owners


1: Articulates The Product Vision

The Product Owner defines the features of the product and clarifies how those features will coalesce to provide value to the business. The Product Owner will participate in the development of user stories, which succinctly define the product features and are used by the product team to estimate the level of effort as they are placed in the product backlog.  As each story is incorporated into a sprint, or iteration, the Product Owner will have a conversation with the team in order to clarify the story and answer questions, as well as identify the acceptance criteria for that story. 


2: Represents The Business

The Product Owner is empowered by the business working with various stakeholders in order to make decisions about the product that is under development.  Those decisions include:

  • What features will be developed and the business value of each.
  • The priority and, therefore, the order in which the features will be developed.
  • The timing of incremental releases to the customers.


As a result of this empowerment, the Product Owner has control over the team’s backlog of features and therefore an active participant in scrum meetings, especially planning meetings.  The Product Owner has the power to say “No” to those on the business side who seek to escalate the priorities of their favorite features, if those features do not deliver the highest value to the business.  The authority possessed by the Product Owner must be delegated from a business unit with product management responsibility. 


3: Accepts Team Deliverables

The Product Owner, when developing user stories, defines what “done looks like.”  That definition of “done” is carried into the development and testing activities.  The Product Owner will review the deliverables and the test results and decide if the functionality is acceptable.  If it is not, the team keeps working on it until it is “done.”  This may result in a deliverable being carried over until the next sprint or iteration.

As you can tell by this brief summary, the Product Owner should possess a considerable amount of authority and should be comfortable with saying “No.”  There lies the problem with the Product Owner role in most organizations.  Those with the proper level of authority feel they are too busy to participate on a day-to-day basis with the project team, even though the team’s burn rate can quickly exceed $250,000.  Often, the role of Product Owner is delegated to business subject matter experts (SME) without sufficient clarity regarding their authority.  When the Product Owner makes an unpopular decision, it is escalated and overturned.  After this cycle repeats a few times, the Product Owner gets the message, stops making hard decisions, and becomes an impediment for the rest of the team.


Senior Leadership – Ensure The Success of Your Agile Program Investments

The agile frame work is new to most organizations, but this problem is as old as management itself – people are put in roles in which they are accountable for certain performance but lack the authority commensurate with that accountability. Consider the following when assigning a Product Owner:

  • The person under consideration for Product Owner should already possess considerable informal authority as a result of his/her knowledge and expertise.

  • Their line of management control should roll up to an executive with business responsibility for the product that is being developed.

  • That executive should explicitly describe the decisions that the Product Owner is empowered to make and those that require further authority.

  • As long as the Product Owner is making decisions within the bounds of the delegated authority, the executive must avoid overriding those decisions.

  • The Product Owner must receive proper training for the role (see Additional Resources below).


Agility requires that teams are empowered, and the Product Owner role is key to achieving that empowerment.


Additional Resources:

  • Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) training: 


  • A great introductory video by Henrik Kniberg


{#/pub/images/RonMontgomery1.jpg}Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.


Do you have a management question for Ron? Please visit our Project Management Community and he will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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