Most agile project management models have a key role called the Product Owner. The product owner ensures agile project teams are focused on highest value outcomes during their sprints and release cycles. The product owner works with the team constantly to refine the backlog and answer questions as the team works to deliver on their commitments. The product owner also works with the team to consider the impact of user stories and task dependencies as well as technical risks that impact the delivery of work during sprints.
To perform well in this role, the product owner must fully understand the needs and wants of their customers. This role must also be available and accessible to the project team so that the agile team never waits for feedback or decisions. This role must deeply understand the key drivers of the business and emphasize these throughout the project to ensure consistent delivery of value.
The product owner role is vital to the success of agile projects. An absent or poorly-performing product owner is one of the leading causes of failed or underperforming agile projects. The author’s experience with many organizations and hundreds of practitioners reinforces, through experience and anecdotes, the powerful impact of a disengaged or unprepared product owner on an agile project.
In the words of one practitioner, the product owner can “make, break or impede” the agile team. If the product owner does not fulfill their responsibilities to the team and the overall business the negative impact shows up in a number of ways.
Most frequently, the issue is that the team is held up waiting for product owner feedback or decisions. Agile’s fast pace during 2 – 4-week sprints means that waiting for a product owner’s input slows the team and reduces the delivery of their commitments during that time frame.
Another common consequence of a poorly performing product owner is a team focused on work items of lower priority or business value instead of deliverables of higher value to the company. This could happen because the product owner is not available or has not prioritized the backlog of work, and so the team spends their time on low-value work such as fixing non-critical defects. This could also happen if an ill-prepared product owner provides incorrect prioritization to a team because they are not clear on how the outcome will generate value.
These are just two examples. The product owner’s role is extremely important to successful agile project execution. As more organizations gain experience using agile, it becomes increasingly clear how impactful it is when this role is not performed well.
When identifying product owners, be sure that:
- They are knowledgeable – they must really understand the fundamentals of the business and the necessary outcomes as well as how they will provide value to customers.
- They are committed – they have a stake in the outcome and so will be fully committed – just like the team.
- They are available – they are not so distracted by other duties that they cannot properly perform the responsibilities of the product owner role.
Ensuring these three key criteria are met will help an organization select product owners who can effectively contribute to high-performing teams and projects.
Shawn Belling, M.S., PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP, is a globally-experienced project management practitioner and instructor. He is a senior consultant for Farwell Project Advisors LLC and has held executive and management roles in software, consulting, bio-pharma, manufacturing, and regulatory compliance sectors. Shawn is also adjunct faculty at the University of Wisconsin with over 25 years of project and program management leadership experience. He teaches, speaks and consults on various project management topics and was awarded a PMI Kerzner Scholarship in 2008. Shawn writes about methodologies and project planning.