Product owners broadly fall into two categories; those that do it as a career, with a "Product Owner" title to match, and those that may only do it once or twice as part of a project. Then they return to their ‘day job’ (i.e., it’s a role they fill temporarily rather than it being their lifetime vocation). I want to focus on the latter because, on Pega projects, Product Owners tend to fall into this ‘transient’ category.
The right product owner for a Pega project has a big impact on delivery success.
Conversely, an ineffective product owner will add cost, increase delivery time, and affect quality. It’s such a critical role within an agile project, but most projects don’t come with a shrink wrapped and experienced product owner. You need to choose the right person. However the pool of candidate product owners is likely to be relatively small. Put simply, they’re special people and often the perceived best person for the role may not be available. So how do you choose the right candidate and how do you help make them a success in the role?
First, let’s remind ourselves of the role of a product owner on a project. The main responsibility is achieving outcomes (i.e., business goals and customer needs). The product owner ensures that what is being built focuses on the ‘right’ functionality. They ensure that they have all the right information to provide the team with the business insights necessary to drive the design of the application. This translates into the backlog, which the product owner owns. They add to it, remove items from it, modify it, refine it and prioritize it. They ensure it is visible, transparent and understood. They are involved in sprint planning, daily stand-ups and participate in the sprint review and retrospective at the end of each sprint. They facilitate the creation of user stories. They accept or reject those user stories, and ensure the appropriate acceptance criteria has been added to each user story (they either delegate this or do it themselves). They basically feed the Scrum team and look to get the most value from the team. They also play an important role outside the Scrum team by collaborating with stakeholders which can range from customers to users to executives. My point is that product owners have a lot to do.
I’m lucky enough to have worked with some very talented product owners; ones that make it look relatively easy. Relative is the key word here, because it’s not easy! However, for medium to large projects, there are some general rules that you can apply to make it easier.
1. Selecting the right product owner is key
The most effective product owners come from the business and understand the business. I‘ve seen some organizations recruit directly into the role from outside, and that always has its challenges. Will they know how the organization currently works? How well do they know the end customers, their needs and how much context do they have of the business goals? A key part of the product owner role is the ability to be a good negotiator among stakeholders who want everything in every release, and a key attribute is that they want to do it; someone who has the passion to take on this rewarding and highly visible role is invaluable.
2. Empower the product owner to make decisions
If an organization places someone in the role but does not empower and trust them to make the right decisions, including the ability to say ‘No’ and instead want to make decisions by committee, then it will undermine the product owner and slow the project down. A product owner needs to have the creative space to be able to prioritize and course correct. They need to be empowered to decide what stories are complete (by meeting the acceptance criteria) and can therefore be released out of a sprint as ‘done’. In Scrum, this role belongs solely to the product owner who conducts the checks and balances for the team. It’s an important role!
3. Don’t merge a product owner role with another role such as Project Manager or Scrum Master
It is unlikely to work. They should not wear two hats. We want to avoid any conflicts of interest. As a product owner, they want to avoid having to ask themselves questions like “do I make the right decision for the solution or the cheapest decision that will deliver my project on time, but compromised?”
4. Make them 100% dedicated
Temporarily relinquish them of their ‘day jobs’ outside the project so they can focus on the project. They’ll become immersed in it. Context switching between being part of the business and being core to the project is a lot to juggle. The product owner will be in high demand and could become a bottleneck if they are not always available, which can become expensive.
5. Support the product owner
They will need prior training and on-the-job coaching in the role. They are most likely not used to playing this role and will need constant support. Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches are long term vocations; they can guide the product owner and help to make them a success. Leverage that. Good product owners don’t magically appear out of thin air.
If your project is applying these rules, while it won’t guarantee success, it gives you a much better chance of it. There is a consistent correlation between projects that are trending red and product owner issues, and it’s rarely to do with the individual that fills the role and more to do with the way the role has been positioned and supported.