Why the Product Owner's Role Is Evolving

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Due to the popularity of Scrum, the idea of having a product owner has taken hold of development professionals and is used by teams that are not even using Scrum. With this industry-wide adoption, the definition of product ownership and the product owner's role has evolved. In this video that borrows some effective techniques from Sesame Street, Kenneth from Agilify UK interviews Roman Pichler about the product owner’s role. This description seems to stick pretty close to the way the role was originally identified.

Let's remember that agile teams deal with two primary challenges: What is the right thing to build, and how do you build the thing right? While agile teams address both of these challenges, they tend to focus on only the second challenge, deferring the first to a role labeled as either the product owner when using Scrum or the onsite customer when using extreme programming.

Lately, many people in the agile community have suggested that it is more helpful to think of multiple people performing product ownership rather than a single person acting as the product owner. This idea was explicitly discussed at the Agile 2012 Conference by Jeff Patton in his talk "The Product Owner's Role is a Stupid Idea."

While the slides or video of the session are not available, this review by Craig Smith about halfway down the page provides a great overview. In the session, Patton explains that it’s not workable for a single person to fill the product owner role, and instead the entire team needs to own the product. Pawel Brodinski also described the difference in his blog post, "Product Owner Versus Product Ownership."

So what exactly is product ownership? The best description of product ownership I have come across that both delivery teams and business folks can understand is in this short video by Henrik Kniberg called “Agile Product Ownership in Nutshell.” This video describes not only the mechanics of product ownership but also some of the key decisions and challenges that product owners face.

One of the challenges facing product owners is managing expectations of multiple stakeholders who often have different and competing priorities. To address this dilemma, check out Ilio Krumins-Breens post about a technique he uses to determine how to interact with multiple stakeholders and manage their expectations.

Our understanding of the role of the product owner and product ownership will continue to grow as more people experiment with and describe different approaches to these activities, as Peter Saddington did with his story on his experiences with product ownership at the Department of Defense.

As more of these experiences and ideas are shared, the agile community will get a better idea of how to determine what is the right thing to build.

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Kent J. McDonald

Kent J. McDonald is an author, speaker, and coach. His more than fifteen years of experience includes work in business analysis, strategic planning, project management, and product development in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, human services, nonprofit, and automotive. He is coauthor of Stand Back and Deliver: Accelerating Business Agility.