The Product Owner: Understanding the Role and Responsibilities

Jul 8, 2020

Product manager and product owner—people often use these terms interchangeably, but there are differences between the two. Today, we'll look at the roles and responsibilities of a product owner. This will help us compare the role to that of the product manager and to clarify the differences between the two.

So, what is a product owner? A product owner is someone who's responsible for a product's vision and for guiding the team to make that vision a reality. Furthermore, experienced and skilled product owners manage and prioritize a project's technical requirements. They also mediate between the team and the client to ensure that these technical requirements are implemented.

This post will bring more understanding to the role and responsibilities of a product owner. Furthermore, we'll discuss the requirements and qualifications needed to become a product owner, the differences between a product manager and product owner, the challenges facing product owners, and the future of the role.

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The Product Owner's Role

Let's begin with a better understanding of the product owner's role.

There are three distinct roles in every scrum team: the product owner, the scrum master, and the development team. The product owner is the center of product development. He or she must make decisions that maximize value.

In a scrum team, the product owner looks in two directions at the same time—at the market and at the product development:

  • External view—the market direction. Product owners must understand stakeholders' and customers' needs so they can act as their voice. At this moment, the product owner takes on the role of a product manager and ensures that the right solution is developed.

  • Internal view—the product development direction. Product owners are in constant communication with the development team, take their input into account, and prioritize the requirements. They specify test and acceptance criteria and verify these using the product increment.

Therefore, the product owner is a really important position between business processes. Next, let's have a look at the responsibilities that the product owner assumes.

The Product Owner's Responsibilities

The main responsibility of a product owner is to ensure that the product brings value to its customers and users, and to the company. In this section, I detail the product owner's major responsibilities.

Develop the Product Vision

The product owner is involved in developing a vision of the end product. For this purpose, all developments in the market must be observed. Therefore, researching, observing, and analyzing the market is an essential part of the work. The product owner must know what's going on, because different interests have to be weighed against each other. The product owner also must provide the scrum team with valuable information and insights related to the product.

Manage the Product Backlog

The product owner creates the product backlog and determines the order in which the items should be processed.

The most important ideas are always at the top of the list because they deliver the most significant value for the end user. A good description of the product backlog items ensures that the project team understands and can process them.

The product backlog is the place where all requirements for the product are collected and managed. The product owner is in charge of this document and is therefore responsible for maintaining and monitoring it. Furthermore, the product owner creates a list of technical requirements and formulates these clearly and understandably so that everyone involved knows about the requirements.

The details of the product backlog are written in the "user story" format. User stories don't require an exhaustive specification of the "upfront" solution. Instead, they stimulate fluid and enriching dialogue between those involved during product development. User stories reflect a user need, a product description, a mechanism to defer a conversation, and a planning item. During the product discovery and definition process, the need for various levels of granularity may arise that are closely tied to the size and scale of a detail of what we define. Thus, a hierarchy emerges that facilitates the work with the requirements.

Define Acceptance Criteria

The acceptance criteria are conditions of satisfaction, specific to each user story, under which the product must satisfy functional and nonfunctional requirements. The product owner must ensure that the acceptance criteria are specified and that the tests that will verify compliance with those criteria in the product are constructed and executed.

Prioritize Needs

The product owner prioritizes the individual requirements from the product backlog and which functions should be implemented in which order. The product owner discusses the needs and priorities together with the scrum team. They decide together which tasks to perform in the current scrum sprint. After each sprint, the product owner also checks the progress of the tasks at hand and adjusts the schedule for the project, if necessary.

Manage Development Stages

After defining the product priorities, the users' story, the vision, and the product strategies, the product owner must monitor the development stages of the actual product. The product owner plays a crucial part in the product planning, perfecting, reviewing, and sprint. In the planning phase, the stakeholder and the product owner jointly determine and organize the necessary steps for all product iteration. Then they meet with their team to identify opportunities to improve and support the sprint.

Monitor Progress

Another significant aspect of the product owner's responsibility is providing feedback. In this regard, the review meeting at the end of a sprint is substantial for the product owner, because the results of the work performed are presented there. The product owner defines most of the topics of the review meeting and is also responsible for inviting the most important stakeholders. On this occasion, the product owner sends his or her feedback to the development team for improvement.

For an extra hand, product owners can use Plutora to track the overall progress of product features and releases from idea to delivery in real time.

Act as the Primary Liaison

The product owner collaborates and communicates with the development team and the scrum master. The product owner determines what needs to be done but gives the development team the freedom to determine how this is implemented. Cooperation with the various stakeholders is therefore essential.

Anticipate Client Needs

The most important responsibility of a product owner is to represent the customer's interests well. Product owners are experts who understand and anticipate customers' needs to control the development process more effectively.

Skills Needed to Become a Product Owner

Now that we've had a look at the role and its responsibilities in depth, you may be wondering how one becomes a product owner. Is technical knowledge necessary to be a product owner? The short answer is no, but the long answer is that technical skills do help. A more important skill is having experience in product development.

I hope to shed some light with the following list of the hard and soft skills required to be a product owner, beyond experience:

Good Communication

The employees' motivation is also decisive for the success of a project. Only those who can identify with the vision, product, and all decision-making steps will be motivated to develop new ideas and solutions on their responsibility—which is important so that the scrum process works. Product owners must ensure that the scrum process works. They should be enthusiastic and be fully behind the company to convince all team members of the decisions and the future vision. In the best-case scenario, the product owner has attended rhetoric seminars or received further training in this area and knows how to formulate ideas in an engaging and understandable way.

Problem Solving

In the event of a problem, product owners must work out various solutions with corresponding advantages and disadvantages. They'll then communicate these solutions to the development team.

Customer-to-Product Translator

Product owners must be sensitive and responsive to the people they're talking to and to their motivations. Through empathy, they must recognize how best to deal with their counterparts. This skill is critical because, as a product owner, you'll function as a mediator or translator between the stakeholders and the development team.

Technical Knowledge

Since the product owner will be interacting regularly with the development team, having technical expertise can go a long way when solving a problem. Technical knowledge helps bridge the gap between the technical and business aspects of a project while collaborating with developers and business representatives.

Domain Knowledge

Since product owners have to make the most critical decisions, they need specialist knowledge in all essential areas—such as IT, marketing, media, and management. This is the only way they can understand and prioritize the stakeholders' various points of view.

Requirements and Qualifications

You must be very familiar with scrum before you can become a qualified scrum product owner. I recommend that you read the Agile Manifesto and Scrum Guide and watch the Scrum Foundations video series.

After completing these prerequisites, you must take a live Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) course taught by a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST). Most classes start with a short quiz to confirm that you're familiar with scrum principles and are therefore ready to meet the challenges presented in the course.

To develop your skills, you can become an advanced certified scrum product owner or a certified professional scrum product owner. Here are some organizations that offer scrum product owner certifications:

  • Scrum Alliance

  • Scrum Inc

  • 280 Group

  • Project Management Institute

  • Simplilearn Solutions


Differences Between the Product Owner and the Project Manager

Each organization implements agile differently. While some organizations identify the difference between both roles, others may have a unique role—the product owner or the product manager. 

In some organizations, the product owner iѕ аn agile project manager who's responsible fоr the рrоjесt'ѕ ѕuссеѕѕ. In other cases, the scrum master is an agile project manager who's accountable for task definition and prioritization.

The most definite way to distinguish these two roles is by saying that the product owner represents the products’ voice and the product manаgеr represents the customer's voice.

Thе mаin diffеrеnсе between a product owner and a project manager can also be viewed in terms of their mindѕеt when solving problems. The business owner's role is to get the most value from product development with the available funds, whereas the project manager's role is to deliver the best business result with available resources.

Another difference is that the product owner and project manager communicate with different stakeholders.

Product managers ensure that internаl and external influencers support upcoming products or functions. They're the primary liaison between the product development team and the company's stakeholders. If the upcoming product is rejected, the product manager muѕt send this description back to the developer for review. After careful review, the product manager must return to the stakeholders for approval.

Product owners work more internally than product managers. They work closely with the development team to ensure that products are completed on time.

Can a product manager be a product owner?

Defining the relationship between product owners and product managers can be difficult because many factors affect how these roles work between companies. Some of these factors are the adoption of scrum and agile practices, the structure of the department, the size of the organization, and the corporate values, to name a few examples. The common goal of the product owner and product manager is to develop and improve products that create meaningful value for customers and all stakeholders in the company. This is done by the provision and optimization of product features. In some cases, the product manager can also act as the product owner. However, for the reasons I've described so far in this blog post, this isn't always possible. In these situations, the organization needs dedicated personnel to assume this role.

If you're a product manager making the shift to a product owner role, Plutora can help you with your new responsibilities.

Challenges of Being a Product Owner

While being a product owner is rewarding, dynamic, and important, you'll experience challenges when you undertake this role. Here, I give the top challenges you may face.

Too Many High Priorities

When you first begin working in a product owner role, you'll quickly understand that you need to meet many priorities. These priorities come from anywhere and everywhere. It might be a priority on your roadmap or from stakeholder or customer feedback. You may even have direct requests from the CEO. Juggling all of these to get the best outcomes for the customer is incredibly challenging.

Changing Priorities During Sprinting

The product owner maintains a delicate balance between the scrum team and the customer. The scrum team may prefer a release schedule and sprint time that varies according to customer requirements. Prioritizing features isn't always easy, and it can lead to incorrect decisions. It's a challenge for all involved to reach a consensus.

High-Level Acceptance Criteria

The scrum team may not have the expertise required in the customer's field. The views of the scrum team and the client may differ. Clearly defining the acceptance criteria for all functions is a challenge, but it's a necessary prerequisite for high-quality project results.

Plutora's product management platform helps address these challenges. With their product management tool, you can break down operational silos across IT and product teams and gain end-to-end visibility of your features’ development status, change impacts, and release schedule.

The Future of a Product Owner

The role of a product owner in an agile team is fundamental to the success of product development. The product owner is a crucial member of the scrum team. He owns products in terms of quality and delivery based on stakeholders' expectations. The product owner must have a broad understanding of the product and all other factors, such as marketing, design, development, organizational readiness, and product functions. All of these should be managed, coordinated, and synchronized with each other to promote product success. As the rate of innovation increases, product owners who know what works for the organization, product, and market can succeed in any industry.

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