Who Should Be a Product Owner?

At a recent workshop, one of the participants asked me this question, “We want to start a new Scrum team. But we are confused about who to ask to be the product owner. We have a choice of someone who doesn’t know how to be a product owner, is 10 time zones away, but knows the current product, the customers and what they want. We also have a choice of someone here (same time zone) but he doesn’t know the current product or the customers. Who’s the better product owner?”

What a terrible choice. I didn’t like either choice.

I would look for a third option. I would look for someone who is interested in being a product owner, can either learn the product or learn how to be a product owner, and is local so he/she can participate in demos and sprint planning. My colleague says there is no one who could do that.

My colleague wants to know who you would pick, of the two options above: a local person who doesn’t know the current product or customers, or someone 10 time zones away who doesn’t know how to be a product owner. Please leave a comment if you have an opinion.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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12 Responses to Who Should Be a Product Owner?

  1. I would pick the local person to be the product owner. This person would then learn from the remote person and get acquainted with the product.

  2. Wait, according to your post the client has somebody “here (same time zone) but he doesn’t know the current product or the customers”

    yet this person is either not “interested in being a product owner” or for some reason cannot “either learn the product or learn how to be a product owner.”

    Why would you pick this person if the person either is not interested in or is not capable of becoming a product owner?

    How important is this project? Is it worth stealing a (local) superstar from another project?

  3. How about you use both? One trains the other in the areas he/she needs to get up to speed on. One will serve as the product owner (local would be my suggestion) and the other a business analyst (10 time zones away). If the person 10 time zones away knows the customers, then is it safe to say that the customers are also distributed globally? If so, having both a PO and BA is likely a good long term solution.

  4. rick says:

    Sigh. I’d not go scrum in that case. And I’d look at why the only person who knows your product well enough to be the owner is 10 time zones away. This just reeks of poor management.

    If someone forced me, at the point of a gun, to choose I’d choose the local resource. Then I’d start looking at firing the director who oversees this mess.

  5. joapen says:

    I would get the person located 10 times zones away. He knows the customer and they will be more confortable.

  6. Aleh Matus says:

    In this case, I would like to see the Product Owner emerge from within the team.

  7. Thierry Thelliez says:

    Where are most of the customers and power users located? Locally or 10 times zones away? The product owner should be able to have regular face to face meetings with the customers, I think.

    If the remote person really knows the market/product/customers, absolutely keep this person! If this person really knows the market, the added value to the project/team will be orders of magnitude more than a local person without any knowledge.

    Is this person valuable mostly because of his/her knowledge (more like an expert/consultant)? Or can s/he really drive a value driven prioritization? For my point of view, this is different. For example, having a deep knowledge about airline companies and flight reservations is different than being able to drive priorities for (an sometimes against) the customers and for the company benefit (ROI, competition,…) while implementing an on-line reservation system.

    I like Joshua’s suggestion to use both, if practical.

  8. Chet Frame says:

    I would go with the person who is interested and knows the product. We can use technology to overcome the time zones and telecommunications.

  9. Jim Ward says:

    So you want to start a SCRUM team. This is the wrong project. Think again. I want to start a volleyball team, but I don’t have the players, the net or the ball.

    I recall a wise person once say something like don’t make a decision until you have at least three choices. Then don’t decide until you can think of at least three things that could go wrong with each choice. This sounds like a perfect situation to apply that aphorism.

  10. jane says:

    Pick a person who would like to become the product owner and work with a Scrum team.
    Local or remote, knowledgeable or clueless, whenever there is a will, there is a way.

  11. Paul Lear says:

    I’m confused. Why do you ‘want to start a Scrum team’ if you don’t have anyone who cares enough about the product to be the owner?

  12. The most important attribute of a good product owner or manager is the ability to learn a market. Often, prior knowledge of a product is actually a liability.

    In September 2007, I wrote:

    But “learning” means acquiring knowledge, not having it already. A product manager who is knowledgeable about an industry solely as a result of lengthy prior experience is much less capable – and much less valuable – than a product manager who can quickly master a market and domain.

    After all, markets change. New competitors enter the landscape, and user and buyer psychographics evolve. Don’t you want a product manager who knows how to keep abreast of, or anticipate, these changes rather than relying on the way things used to be?

    Thus we see that prior domain experience, while helpful, can be a crutch. An insistence on prior industry knowledge amounts to a concession that product managers are not capable of performing their primary learning function.

    So I would look for a candidate who has a demonstrated ability to interview prospective customers, analyze a market, and communicate market understanding to the Scrum team.

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