Within the context of product development, the fact that Agile planning is based on business value emphasizes the essentiality of the role of the Product Owner (PO). In this regard, we wish to present considerations that can be useful when choosing the person who will play this key role.
Do we have the right PO?
First, there are elements that have to be evaluated in order to find out whether or not we chose the right person. It is important, among other things, to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Does the PO propose value-based performance indicators in order to ensure that the work done produces the expected results? Is he transparent and does he lead the discussion with this value in mind?
- Are the users’ needs the focus of the discussions with the PO?
- Does the PO have the capacity to bring together several stakeholders? Do these stakeholders share a common vision of the product?
- Does the PO trust the development team? Does he allow them to fail and learn from it?
- Does the product managed by the PO increases the value of the organization? Is the PO open to discuss this matter? Do we trust the PO?
If you answered no to one or several questions, you should ask yourself what should be done for the answer to be yes.
Who would be a good candidate?
Among the various roles already in place in the organization, some are assumed by people who are more apt to play the role of PO.
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Directors of a business unit
the + They organize, lead, control and evaluate all activities of their operating unit. They are aware of the quality standards, deadlines, and profitability of each project, which could greatly facilitate their work.
the – Their role as directors keeps them quite busy. Therefore, their availability could be restricted. It could be difficult for them to execute the daily tasks of a PO, such as answering the team’s questions and maintaining the product backlog.
the + Being in charge of the overall management of a product (i.e., from design to release), they are good candidates for the role of PO.
the – They have to carry out other tasks than those related to software development, such as marketing and change management. Therefore, it could be difficult for them to focus on the product backlog.
Architects or business analysts
the + They could make great candidates, because they know how to analyze the organization’s business processes and to suggest new ways to do things to increase performance and efficiency. Their good technical knowledge and their extended knowledge of the business field could be assets when playing the role of PO.
the – They have a systemic view of what could become the product. Since they are holding a less strategic position, their vision of what should be the product could be limited.
the + Being responsible for the smooth running of projects, they can take the role of PO. They know how to lead a team and organize their work throughout a project, which could be very useful when playing their role in a Scrum team.
the – They focus on the project scope and work with levers such as budgets and deadlines. This could be disadvantageous, since the PO should be maximizing benefits rather than working on the scope.
A good Product Owner:
- makes results visible
- measures the work done and fosters introspection
- is available to the team
- orders the product backlog efficiently
- has credibility with stakeholders regarding
Who is likely to support the PO?
Each one of these positions has the skills to play the role of PO. However, they all have a blind spot. The team could compensate for these weaker points.
- Governance is at the service of teams; they direct them with clear objectives and provide them with all they need to be efficient.
- The Project Management Office (PMO) focuses on targeted benefits rather than delivery tracking. It encourages teams to undertake small initiatives with high added value.
- Architects and analysts develop flexible tools and processes, which allow to continuously adjust the organizational
- Those in charge of the infrastructure and change management adapt their practices in order to be able to frequently release the increments delivered by the project teams with as little impact as possible.
Considerations for choosing the PO
The size of the organization
The smallest the organization, the more strategic the role of the PO, because the product’s success is closely linked to the company’s success.
For larger organizations, the PO’s position is also strategic, since they need to have access to the stakeholders and be able to receive their impressions and, when needed, convince them. A challenge faced by large-scale organizations is to find someone who is also close to operations. It is important that the chosen PO understands the reality of operations and is able to align with the business strategy.
We are not necessarily looking for a good project manager. In large organizations, the PO is usually responsible for the product backlog. He prioritizes what is absolutely necessary over what is optional. His objective is to achieve the best possible results according to time and budget constraints; i.e., when the backlog management lever is no longer sufficient and the budget and time parameters need to be changed. In large organizations, POs often require the intervention of the PMO or of a project manager.
The product size
The size of the product is an aspect that influences the selection of the PO. For a larger project, the PO needs to be dedicated to it on a full-time basis. Therefore, we have to choose someone who can devote their entire time to the product.
In the case of a major product, the organization could put several POs in place, with a primary PO in charge of the main backlog and product vision. For this role, the person must have a good knowledge of the market and users’ needs. Since various teams are in place and involved in product development, it is important to have one PO per product.
In major development projects, there is sometimes what we call a proxy PO. This PO is highly involved in the management of the team’s sprint backlog. The perfect candidate has to be able to answer any questions related to the sprint backlog items. Although this option is sometimes selected, it should be avoided whenever possible.
The product life cycle
The life cycle of a product is also an important element to consider when selecting the PO.
If the product is at the beginning of its life cycle, the candidate must have excellent knowledge of the market. With a new product, assumptions tend to change. Thus, the PO will have to adjust the direction of the product based on the client’s needs and feedback. The individual playing the role has to show flexibility and adaptability. Plus, he has to be available to the team.
Regarding a product at the end of its life cycle, the PO does not have to have the notions of the market value. However, he needs management and technical skills. At this stage, requests for change are often related to the maintenance of the product. As investments are minimized, the PO only works on the product on a part-time basis.
The maturity of the team is also a factor influencing the selection of the PO.
For new teams not mastering the business field and not having the knowledge of the market, POs must be experienced. They must be able to communicate efficiently with their teams in order for them to have a good understanding of the clients’ needs. In these circumstances, strong leadership skills are to be favoured. The PO helps the team to gain confidence and team members to grow closer to one another. Thus, the team members become more self-sufficient and ultimately they will be able to understand the needs well.
For mature teams who know the business field, they need POs who are not using a command-and-control approach, because it could undermine their creativity. The PO must be someone who is able to share the product responsibility with the team members and who can provide them with all the support they need. Somehow, the role of the PO is then that of a consultant.
The nature of the project
It is sometimes said that if a project is more of a technological nature, then it calls for a PO with highly technical skills. It could be an asset to have someone with technical skills. It is indeed easier for such a candidate to understand the team’s language. Then, we mostly look at the person’s profile, intrinsic qualities.
The “candidate’s” profile:
- Someone who is available throughout the project
- Someone who understands the business field
- Someone who understands the vision and challenges of the project
- Someone who is a great communicator
- Someone who works well with others
So, is there a Product Owner in the room?
Whichever the candidate we choose to undertake the role of PO that person will play a key role. It is thus important to choose them carefully and to support them thoroughly.