The Evolution of a Product Owner
In the beginning, there was this agile role called a product owner. That product owner was the customer and generated an awesome backlog for a team.
… At least, that’s what the advice blogs and books said. Or was it what I read?
Anyhow, most who did read those early works would say, “Great! Where can I find this product owner?” Then they’d search for a willing customer, or try to “make” someone the product owner.
The fact is, the product owner already existed. The role of the product owner comes in the form of the person or the people who can bring a ready backlog to a team of people to deliver.
The practical application of agile in organizations was and still is difficult. After all, the product owner has to be tech-savvy, aware of the market, and accountable for execution, innovation, and quality. To do this across five teams is one thing. To do it across fifty is another. Do it across five hundred, and now we are talking about a good time.
If you are in one of those larger groups and are searching for the unicorn, I have to tell you: There isn’t one.
Iterating on the Product Owner
The first form of the product owner is still the desired one. If you find an organization that is ready and willing to foster this role, go for it. Make no mistake; in this situation, the product owner is critical. He owns his outcome and is accountable for it as well.
Many forms of agile have moved into some form of a proxy—a stand-in who is empowered to make decisions within certain constraints. In smaller product development organizations, this might look like the relationship between a product manager and a business analyst, quality analyst, or project manager. In small to medium product development organizations, this might be a product manager communicating to another product manager who is acting as the product owner.
It is important to look back at the reason we carry out this role at all. Remember, we want to generate an awesome backlog. To achieve this, you will likely find extra people participating with the product owner. A person with architectural knowledge and a UX person are the usual suspects. Depending on your domain, you will likely find more. Whoever is essential to building an awesome backlog for your teams and owning that backlog, that’s who you need.
That’s where these new-fangled product owner teams and program teams come from: They build awesome backlogs. If you can do it without them, do it. Don’t build bloated systems. Look for work not to do.
The rest is not trivial. It’s being truly aware of the market in organizations that span hundreds of teams. It’s setting an organizational goal and either nailing it or failing quickly. It’s choosing when to innovate and when to optimize and monitor product-market fit. It’s promoting the evolution of the product owner.
Timothy Wise will present his session Emerging Product Owner Patterns in Large Organizations at Agile Development Conference East 2015, from November 8–13 in Orlando, Florida.