Developers in agile projects often tell me the greatest challenges in they face are in relation to the product owner. The specific issues vary but a couple of things usually come up:
- The product owner does not have enough time and is often not available
- The product owner is not able to make decisions or decisions made are quickly overruled
So why do so many product owners struggle to fill their role? The answer lies in how organizations select the product owner. Most organizations choose a product owner based on domain knowledge. The person that is most knowledgeable about the parts of the organisation that will be affected by the new system gets the job. In practice this often leads to a manager at the appropriate level becoming product owner. Unfortunately, a strategy that intuitively feels correct can sometimes be completely wrong. A contributing factor to the problems many organizations have in finding a suitable product owner is a lack of experience in the workings of agile development. After many years as a product owner for hire I have concluded that the following criteria are essential in order to master the product owner role (in addition to having domain knowledge):
The role is time consuming. It is difficult to combine with other responsibilities in other than the smallest of projects.
- Understanding of agile development
A skilled nurse knows which tool the surgeon will require next. A product owner must anticipate what the developers will be asking for and prepare answers in time. The product owner role in an agile project requires a very different approach compared with being the customer’s voice in a traditional project.
- Analytic skills
The product owner must be able to quickly understand how processes work and how they can be improved. It is of little use to be an expert in a process if you don’t have the ability to analyze why it is designed the way it is and how it ought to be changed.
- Technical understanding
In order to be able to balance the developers the product owner must understand the consequences of strategic technical decisions. It is furthermore an illusion to believe that requirements can be defined independently of technology. A third point is that the product owner is responsible for the development of a release strategy. This requires a combination of technical and business understanding.
- Project management experience
Making sure that the product that is developed is actually put into use requires project management skills.
A product owner must be able to take a lot of heat and argue for sometimes painful choices without being perceived as biased.
If these are the factors that decide whether a product owner will be able to do a good job the question of where to find one needs to be rethought. It is easier to understand why so many organizations have such difficulties finding a candidate that is up to the job. Fortunately, there are alternatives to just taking the best available candidate and hoping that things will work out:
A skilled mentor can aid an inexperienced product owner in the journey to becoming proficient in all aspects of the role.
More hands on than a mentor, an assistant works together with the product owner in planning work and executing tasks. The assistant should also act as a mentor so that the product owner becomes more self-sufficient over time.
- Hired product owner
Many people balk at this alternative. They feel that if they hire the product owner they will lose control of the project. This is based on the common misunderstanding that the product owner owns the product alone. A good product owner does not take decisions in isolation. A good product owner works with the organization to figure out the best course of action. The trick is to be one step ahead of the developers. One thing to note (if you are contracting out the project) is that you should never hire a product owner from the same company that supplies the rest of the team. A vital part of the role is in balancing the power that the team has in the day to day workings of the project. This will not work as well if the product owner comes from the same external company as the team.
The product owner role is critical to the success of a project. Too many projects suffer from having the wrong person on the job.
Addenum: This post has some interesting thoughts on the product owner role.