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What Are the Critical Skills of a Scrum Product Owner in Agile?

I recently participated in an online discussion on the question of “What are the Critical Skills of a Scrum Product Owner?” This is a very good question because the role of a Product Owner is not very well-understood. The actual role that a Product Owner plays can vary significantly in the real-world depending on the nature of the company’s business and the scope and complexity of the projects that the Product Owner is responsible for.

What are the Critical Skills of a Scrum Product Owner?

What Does the Scrum Guide Say?

The Scrum Guide defines the role of the Scrum Product Owner. However, it recognizes that the role varies widely across organizations. Here’s what the Scrum Guide has to say:

“The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.”

“The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:”
  • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
  • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed
“The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.”

Impact of the Nature of the Company’s Business

The nature of the company’s business can have a very big impact on the role of the Product Owner. In this regard, there are two major types of companies that are most significant:

  • Product-oriented Companies
  • Project-oriented Companies

Product-oriented Companies

Product-oriented companies who are in the business of selling products to external customers are at one extreme. In those companies, a Product Owner may have the full responsibilities of a Product Manager, including product profit-and-loss responsibility.

In this world, the critical skills of a Product Owner might be essentially the same as the skills of a good Product Manager; however for large complex products, there may be both a Product Manager with overall business responsibility for the product and a Product Owner who is responsible for the development effort.

Project-oriented Companies

At another extreme, are companies that are not really in the product development business at all. The work is more project-oriented to develop application solutions for internal use inside the company. In that kind of environment, the role of a Product Owner is likely to be very different. What is typical in this role is the role of the Product Owner is somewhat of a combination of a “Business Analyst on steroids” and a “Project Manager”. However, the role goes well beyond the roles of both a Business Analyst and a Project Manager. The Product Owner typically has much more decision-making authority and accountability than either of those roles.

Scrum Product Owner versus Business Analyst Role

A Product Owner has some attributes of a Business Analyst:

  • Both have a responsibility to represent the requirements of the business solution, but the Product Owner role is much more than an ordinary Business Analyst. A Product Owner has decision-making responsibility on the requirements where a normal Business Analyst does not have that kind of authority. 
  • The Product Owner also has some attributes of a Project Manager as he/she is responsible for the successful completion of the project. That responsibility is also much more than a normal Project Manager. A Project Manager is normally responsible only for delivering defined requirements without responsibility for the overall project’s business success. 

Critical Scrum Product Owner Skills

In this world, the critical skills of a Product Owner are:

  • Business Analysis Skills – Some “Business Analyst” skills are necessary for succinctly and accurately defining requirements but also have the domain knowledge and business knowledge to be a decision-maker to determine and prioritize what those requirements should be
  • Product Management Skills – Depending on the nature of the company’s business (products or projects) and the scope and complexity of the projects, there is likely to be a component of product management in the Product Owner role
  • Project Management Skills – Some “Project Management” skills are necessary to make good risk-based decisions on managing the project to make it successful from an overall business perspective (not simply meeting defined requirements)
  • Overall Management Skills – Above all else, the Product Owner is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the project from a business perspective. He is an important decision-maker and is sometimes referred to as the “CEO of the project”.

Impact of the Scope and Complexity of the Project

Beyond the nature of the company’s business discussed above, the role of the Product Owner can also vary widely due to the scope and complexity of the project.

  • At one extreme, you might have a small, single-team Agile project with a very limited scope and complexity
  • At another extreme, you might have a much larger and more complex enterprise-level project with multiple teams

Naturally, that will also have a very big impact on the role of the Product Owner.

What Does a Scrum Product Owner Really Do?

So, what does a Product Owner really do? Here’s a very good article on that subject:

The Top 10 Responsibilities of a Product Owner

Related Articles

The following are some related articles on the topic of Agile Business Management:

Training for Product Owners

I’ve developed a new course entitled “Agile Project Management for Business Managers” that is intended to help business people develop the skills that are needed to fill the Product Owner role. The course is basically a very abbreviated version of my complete curriculum for Agile Project Management. You can find more information on this course here:

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