Who Should be Your Product Owner?

In agile, we separate the Product Owner function from functional (development) management. The reason is that we want the people who can understand and evaluate the business value to articulate the business value to tell the people who understand the work’s value when to implement what. The technical folks determine how to implement the what.

Separating the when/what from how is a great separation. It allows the people who are considering the long term and customer impact of a given feature or set of features a way to rank the work. Technical teams may not realize when to release a given feature/feature set.

In my recent post, Product Manager, Product Owner, or Business Analyst?, I discussed what these different roles might deliver. Now it’s time to consider who should do the product management/product ownership roles.

If you have someone called a product manager, that person defines the product, asks the product development team(s) for features, and talks to customers. Notice the last part, the talking to customers part. This person is often out of the office. The product manager is an outward-facing job, not an internally-focused job.

The product owner works with the team to define and refine features, to replan the backlogs, and to know when it is time to release. The product owner is an inward-facing function.

(Just for completeness, the business analyst is an inward-facing function. The BA might sit with people in the business to ask, “Exactly what did you mean when you asked for this functionality? What does that mean to you?” A product owner might ask that same question.)

What happens when your product manager is your product owner? The product development team doesn’t have enough time with the product owner. Maybe the team doesn’t understand the backlog, or the release criteria, or even something about a specific story.

Sometimes, functional managers become product owners. They have the domain expertise and the ability to create a backlog and to work with the product manager when that person is available. Is this a good idea?

If the manager is not the PO for his/her team, it’s okay. I wonder how a manager can build relationships with people in his/her team and manage the problems and remove impediments that the team needs. Maybe the manager doesn’t need to manage so much and can be a PO. Maybe the product ownership job isn’t too difficult. I’m skeptical, but it could happen.

There is a real problem when a team’s manager is also the product owner. People are less likely to have a discussion and disagree with their managers, especially if the organization hasn’t moved to team compensation. In Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, Sutton discusses the issue of how and when people feel comfortable challenging their managers. 

Many people do not feel comfortable challenging their managers. At all.

We want the PO and the team to be able to have that give-and-take about ranking, value, when it makes sense to do what. The PO makes the decision, and with information from the team, can take all the value into account. The PO might hear, “We can implement this feature first, and then this other feature is much easier.” Or, “If we fix these defects now, we can make these features much easier.” You want those conversations. The PO might say, “No, I want the original order” and the team will do it. The conversations are critical.

If you are a manager, considering being a PO for your team, reconsider. Your organization may have too many managers and not enough POs. That’s a problem to fix. Don’t make it difficult for your team to have honest discussions with you. Make it possible for people with the best interests of the product to have real discussions without being worried about their jobs.

(If you are struggling with the PO role, consider my Product Owner Training for Agencies. It starts next week.)

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  1. Ron Thompson

    I’m so happy to see someone else focused on the differences between product managers focused outward and product owners focused inward!

    • johanna

      Thanks, Ron. IMNHO, the need for both “focuses” is one reason the PO is an overloaded role. If we separate, and actually focus on one thing, inwards or outwards, we have a shot of being able to do the job.

      • Ron Thompson

        Agreed. Allowing Product Owners to focus inward on product delivery makes for a more effective role and avoids the conflicts caused by allowing one stakeholder to have more power in setting priorities. As a facilitator of priorities, rather than dictator, the Product Owner becomes like a ScrumMaster for the stakeholder group.


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