The Agile Product Owner Role

The Agile Product Owner role in Agile is not well understood and how it relates to a typical project management role. I’ve written a lot about “project management” and Agile projects – many people mistakenly assume that “project management” is not needed in an Agile project because there is no Project Manager at a team level. However, even though you may not see anyone with the title of “Project Manager”, the project management discipline is still needed. It’s just a different style of project management and the project management functions are distributed among several other roles rather than being performed by a dedicated Project Manager.

Product management” is another discipline that is equally important and is also often neglected. The role of a “Product Manager” is not well-understood – you typically find “product management” only in companies that market products for external sale such as Intuit Quicken or QuickBooks. You don’t typically see someone called a “Product Manager” associated with an internal IT application development project because the output of that kind of project might not be considered a real “product”. However, many of those applications are significant enough to be treated as a real “product”; and, although it may not justify a dedicated person with the title of “Product Manager”, some product management discipline is needed.

  • Sometimes a Business Analyst might take on some of those functions; however, a Business Analyst does not typically have the level of responsibility and decision-making authority of a true Product Manager.
  • A Project Manager might also take on some of those functions but many project managers are not trained to take on that role and many project managers may not have the decision-making authority to make the kind of business decisions that are needed. In a traditional development project, the Product Manager determines “what” will be built and the Project Manager typically determines the “how”.

Scrum has recognized the importance of this business direction and has created the “Product Owner” role to put more emphasis on providing that kind of discipline and business direction. The Product Owner in an Agile project actually takes on a number of functions that would normally be performed by both a “Project Manager” and a “Product Manager” in a traditional development project. That is actually a huge amount of responsibility that is not fully understood in many cases. When I took a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) course some years ago, it primarily focused on the mechanics of how the Scrum process works and what the Product Owner role is in that process. It was taken for granted that the students knew enough about both project management and product management to perform those functions in the context of an Agile/Scrum project.

In my experience, the Product Owner in an Agile project is a business person who has been thrust into that role and doesn’t necessarily understand all of the requirements and experience required by that role. The Product Management discipline and functions, in particular, typically are not well-understood because it has often been neglected in traditional development projects. Wikipedia.com defines “Product Management” as follows:

“The role may consist of product development and product marketing, which are different (yet complementary) efforts, with the objective of maximizing sales revenues, market share, and profit margins. The product manager is often responsible for analyzing market conditions and defining features or functions of a product. The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical and varies based on the organizational structure of the company. Product management can be a function separate on its own, or a member of marketing or engineering.”

“While involved with the entire product lifecycle, the product management’s main focus is on driving new product development. According to the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), superior and differentiated new products — ones that deliver unique benefits and superior value to the customer — are the number one driver of success and product profitability.”

In a company that develops IT applications for internal use, this same general discipline is needed but it is focused on maximizing the business value that the application provides for the company rather than maximizing the revenue from external sales of the product.

As I’ve mentioned in some of my other blog posts, Agile is forcing us to redefine what we think of as “project management” and this is another example of that. The “Product Owner” role is actually a combination of some “project management” and “product management” discipline. Many project managers seem to think of becoming a Scrum Master as a way of migrating their skills into an Agile project but that may not be the best use of a project manager’s skills. A project manager who has an Agile mindset and also has some strong business domain knowledge might be a very good candidate to migrate into the Product Owner role and that would probably be a better use of their skills than becoming a Scrum Master.

That may be a significant increase in responsibility for some project managers but it seems to be very consistent with my thinking about “The Next Generation of Project Management” where the project manager takes on a new emphasis of driving business value rather than simply managing the scope, costs, and schedules of a project.

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