It seems like this should be an easy question to answer, but in fact it’s surprisingly difficult.
Much of the focus in the Agile world is on the Scrum Master; only now are we starting to see more energy spent on coming to grips with the equally important role of Product Owner. The Product Owner is typically seen as the person within the business who “owns” the software project, who defines the vision and sets the road map.
However, in our experience, it is seldom the case that any one individual is capable of fulfilling the role. This is particularly true when it comes to large complex organisations. As a result, we feel that it makes better sense to see the Product Owner role as one that is best fulfilled by a group of people who each contribute the different skills needed to perform the function. In smaller organisations or projects, a single individual is likely to remain the more practical option.
Based on our collective years of managing software development projects within the Agile framework, we believe the Product Owner function needs to cover the following areas:
Transformative leadership. The Product Owner has to be able to create the vision for the project and align it with the company’s business strategy and goals. Inspirational leadership is also a key factor—those working on the team have to be shown that their work has a wider meaning, and that they are solving a particular business problem.
Value discovery. The question of what constitutes value on a particular project is one that remains elusive. Broadly speaking, there is the value inherent in the product itself as well as the value to the business. Value is something of a moving target, and the Product Owner has a critical role to play in helping the team to discover what constitutes value on a given project.
Decision-making. The essence of an Agile project is that the team works rapidly in small incremental projects. Thus if a decision is not taken, the team is effectively halted—because it is working on a discrete piece of work, there is nothing else it can do in the meantime. The Product Owner function must have the ability to make a decision when it is needed; forward momentum is everything.
Team membership. Besides offering transformative leadership, the Product Owner function also has to be able to play as part of a team. This would cover the team that together provides the total Product Owner function, but also within the wider team—everyone has his or her role, and needs to be give the space and encouragement to play it properly.