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The Product Owner - Top 10 Responsibilities

06.05.2009
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Over the course of the past 5 years, I have often been asked about the role the Product Owner plays in an Agile company. More recently in a rather controversial blog post by Adam Bullied he raised the question – Is there such a thing as an Agile Product Manager?

From my experience, there is. And this role in Scrum is defined as the Product Owner. The Product Owner from my experience differs from that of the traditional Product Manager role in many ways. Additionally, the role the Agile PM plays may vary depending on the environment and situation at hand, but for certain there are key activities the Agile PM must perform.

The Product owner (or Agile PM) shoulders all the responsibility for Project success and is ultimately responsible to the Team, stakeholders and to the company. With so much at stake it's easy to get bogged down or revert back to old ways and the whole team suffers as a result. In order for Scrum to work the Product owner has to focus his time on activities that matter.

Here are the top ten activities I have experienced a Product Owner must perform well in order to keep scrum teams effective:

1. Creates and MAINTAINS the Product Backlog. I emphasize MAINTAINS as this is an on-going job and more than likely a full-time activity. Nothing is constant in the world of software and it’s important that the Product Owner keeps his/her eye on the ball. Note: the Product Backlog must be groomed prior to the Sprint Planning Meeting in order for the team to remain productive.

2. Prioritizes and sequences the Backlog according to business value or ROI (there are lots of tools to help Product Owners do this and lots of books on the subject) The Product Owner is required to have the Backlog sequenced prior to the Sprint Planning Meeting. This means that each user story must be ordered by relative importance. It’s no good to have 5 high priority or 5 medium priorities. It’s important to know which User story is #1, which is #2 etc.

3. Assists with the elaboration of Epics, Themes and Features into user stories that are granular enough to be achieved in a single sprint. User Stories are elaborated at the last responsible moment and it is the Product Owners responsibility to be there during the Sprint Planning meeting to help the teams to understand exactly what is required.

4. Conveys the Vision and Goals at the beginning of every Release and Sprint. The Product Owner must continuously remind the Team of the Sprint and Release goals. This helps to keep the team on track and serves as an over-arching yardstick for the team to measure their activity and progress against.

5. Represents the customer, interfaces and engages the customer. The Product Owner must continuously engage the customer and stakeholders to ensure the Team is building the right product and therefore delivering the ROI expected of it. The Product Owner has the opportunity to steer the team in a different direction at the end of every Sprint, so he/she must be ready to do just that if necessary.

6. Participates in the daily Scrums, Sprint Planning Meetings and Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives. There’s always a lot going on and always an excuse to miss the meetings. But each of these Scrum ceremonies is another chance for the Product Owner to inspect and adapt. And as a result being present at these ceremonies is tantamount to success.

7. Inspects the product progress at the end of every Sprint and has complete authority to accept or reject work done. Work that is either not complete or un-done needs to be re-prioritized or sequenced. An Agile PM is one who is quick to recognize and understand change and to ensure the Product Team adapts to the change in landscape, be it competition, target market or other.

8. Can change the course of the project at the end of every Sprint (30 days if you’re following traditional Scrum methodology by the book). The Product Owner is in complete control and can steer the team in a completely different direction at Sprint boundaries. And good Agile teams will welcome this change as long as the Product Owner is confident and knowledgeable.

9. Communicates status externally. The product owner is the voice of the Team to the outside world and should ensure that all channels of communications are open and that projects have the right amount of support required to succeed.

10. Terminates a Sprint if it is determined that a drastic change in direction is required e.g. a competitor releases a new version which demands a counter response. This is a pretty serious event for Scrum teams. And what this means “technically” is that all work done up until that point is lost. I have not seen this done to many times in my career especially since, there’s really not that much time between Sprints in any event.

The responsibilities of the Product Owner are onerous and there is no one else on the team to cover for him/her or pick up the slack. So if you’re choosing a Product Owner, choose wisely, the difference can be success or failure for the entire project or, in the worst of circumstances, the success or failure of the company.

Written by: Jack Milunksy - COO at Brightspark and Co-founder of Agilebuddy (An Agile project management tool, built with rich collaboration features for Scrum teams). For more from Jack please visit: www.twitter.com/agilebuddy and blog.agilebuddy.com

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Jack Milunsky.

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