FAQ on Most Common Product Owner Questions for Management

complex-product-backlog-product-ownerAs Agile and Scrum grows deeper into the market it is valuable for Management to communicate the rewarding and desirable career path that a Scrum Product Owner can have… even beyond just leading single Scrum Product Teams.

Before you go through this, it may be very helpful to first understand the following:

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Frequently Asked Questions on the Product Owner Role & Organization

Q. What is the Product Owner Role?

A. Product Owner is one of the key roles in Scrum that acts as the “single voice” for priority and acceptance of what to work on for a Scrum Development Team

Q. What is a Product Owner responsible for?

  1. Creates and Maintains the Product Backlog showing visible progress towards forecast results
  2. Prioritizes and sequences the Backlog according to business value as expressed by roadmap and stakeholder needs
  3. Prepares for each sprint and release planning session by working with team to elaborate Feature Stories into Minimal Marketable Features that deliver increments of value and User Stories that are appropriately sized for each sprint.
  4. Conveys the Vision and Goals at the beginning of every Release and Sprint.
  5. Represents customer and stakeholder interests. Engages and solicits their feedback to validate priorities and compromises.
  6. Participates in daily standup Scrums, Sprint Planning Meetings, Sprint Reviews, and Retrospectives.
  7. Accepts User Stories during the sprint to confirm implementation meets intent of acceptance criteria.
  8. Re-negotiates Sprint priorities and commitment when team communicates new discoveries that impact size or value of work.
  9. Communicates status to stakeholders including use of Visible Product Backlog for forecasting release content and dates.

Q. What is definition of Release PO versus Feature PO?

A. When a Scrum Product Team includes more than 2 Scrum Teams we have found that it’s more than one Product Owner can handle. In this case we suggest adding a Release Product Owner as a Product Owner Team lead.  The PO team covers all the responsibilities and activities of a Product Owner divided into RPO and team PO roles. 

Release Product Owner leads the PO team and is first and foremost responsible that the PO team presents a Single Voice

  • Clear statement of vision, direction, release purpose and goals
  • Managing overall Product Backlog and publishing the Product Backlog
  • Show alignment w/ product roadmap
  • Getting stakeholder buy-in on Product Backlog
  • Prioritization of Product Backlog
  • Prepare appropriate Product Backlog to drive release planning
  • Ongoing release plan forecasting
  • Deployment & release readiness checklist
  • Market launch split out to PM

Team Product Owner (or just PO) is a member of the Scrum Team responsible for working with the team from sprint to sprint and grooming the breakdown of Features into sprint sized User Stories so that they are prepared for Sprint Planning

  • Prioritize user stories to drive Sprint Planning
  • Acceptance criteria of stories in sprint
  • Day to day available to team for conversations about stories in sprint
  • Accepting stories in sprint

Q. When do we need this distinction versus having a single PO for smaller product teams?

A. Any time we have more than one PO assigned to a Scrum Product Team.

In some cases the RPO may also act as team PO for one of the Scrum Teams with assistance from additional team PO’s on other Scrum Teams.

Note that we recognize there is overhead incurred by introducing a layer with a Release PO as well as the team POs but have found it is worth it to avoid spreading a PO too thin across more than two Scrum Teams.

Q. If a product has a single PO are they also the RPO?

A. In as sense, Yes. When there is a single PO for a product they span the responsibilities of both RPO and team PO.

Q. Is the product owner a member of the Scrum Team?

A. Yes, Product Owners are considered to be a member of the Scrum Team.  See the definitions for “Scrum Team” and “Scrum Development Team” above.

Each Scrum Team should have a single Product Owner responsible for prioritizing work items for the Sprint backlog along with the corresponding acceptance criteria.  A Product Owner may be a member of up to 2 Scrum Teams. Conversely, each Scrum Team will have a single Product Owner as their input for what work to work on.

Q. Who is responsible for staffing the Product Owner role?

A. Product development quality and effectiveness is highly dependent on product owners to drive requirements through completion. Therefore, development management is responsible to staff a sufficient number of qualified Product Owners to satisfy the needs of each Scrum Team.

Q. Who should Product Owners report to?

A. Leadership over product lines and those who can help influence changes in products depending on market/client needs.

Q. What department should Product Owners report to?

A. Often this is business, and can look like the Product Management Group, sales, or even marketing.

Q. What reporting structure should Product Owners follow?

A. Release level Product Owners should report at an equivalent level to their development management peers. If the development manager(s) for people on the team(s) the PO works with report at Director or VP level, then the PO should report at the same level. Regardless of reporting structure, development management must have the authority to address any impediments. The preferred approach is for people acting as Release Product Owners to report into the Product Development organizational structure.

Q. Who should team Product Owners report to?

A. Team level Product Owners should report into the same department as their RPO.

Q. PO Role vs. full time position?

A. Full time role. It’s one of the most important and can easily take up 100% of their time to do it right.

Q. Is Product Owner a job title or a role that someone with an existing job title fills?

A. To be a release level Product Owner is a full time job that includes coordinating with stakeholders and managing dependencies in addition to working closely with the development team.

Q. Is team PO a full time job?

A. Yes, a team PO is also a full time job dedicated to success of their Scrum Team(s)

Q. How much time should a person expect to spend on Product Owner activities?

A. Full time job for both RPO and team PO’s.

Q. How many Scrum teams would we expect a full time Product Owner to handle?

A. A Product Owner should have no more than two Scrum Teams.

Q. Can one person be a PO for multiple products?

A. Not recommended

Q. Handling “Part Time Product Owners”?

A. Not recommended

Q. Handling “Distant Product Owners”?

A. PO’s assigned to teams should be co-located or at least be in a compatible time zone with their Scrum Team

Q. What is value of technical product owner versus a business focused product owner (and vice-versa)?

A. While in practice we recognize that people come to the PO role with different strengths, we don’t distinguish in the PO role based on their background; these are not recognized types of PO’s.

Q. If you are Product Owner what title would you have?

A.  Product Owner, (we’ll cover career paths next)

Q. What is common industry job title for product owner responsibilities?

A. Some typical job titles used in software development include: Program Manager, Technical Program Manager, Technical Product Manager, Product Analyst, or Product Owner

Q. What are the “lines” between the different roles, where does one stop and the next role start – PM/PO, PO/Business Analyst

A. Product Managers are responsible for a product roadmap that is detailed and aligned to corporate strategy. Product Owner is responsible for ensuring their product backlog is aligned to the roadmap.

Q. How much customer interaction is expected from a Product Owner? How is their interaction different from Product Managers?

A. Product Owners communicate with customers in a listening role to share backlog and results for checking understanding, and in order to solicit feedback. Sales and account management calls should be minimized, and are not considered a primary responsibility for the Product Owner role.

Product Managers communicates externally and across the company. Product Managers are responsible for the market message and communicating commitments and promises to customers.

Q. Where is management support to product owner role & backing their decisions?

A. In addition to coaching and budgeting for professional development and skill building activities management should:

  • Provide feedback on product backlog content, priorities, and dates with clear purpose
  • Support acceptance decisions the PO makes during each sprint
  • Management will route all work for teams through product owner to support single voice for work priorities
  • Manage consistent and qualified staffing for teams from sprint to sprint with minimal changes throughout a release
  • Key Stakeholders will provide clear direction on prioritizing to achieve corporate strategy and product management objectives shown in product roadmaps
  • Development Executives will support the PO in helping Key Stakeholders to understand and accept the necessity for making tradeoff decisions on dates and/or feature content consistent with actual team capacity

Q. Who are PO’s are accountable to?

A. Product Owners are accountable to the Key Stakeholders who make the financial commitments:

  • Business Unit President
  • CTO
  • Product Manager

Product Owners negotiate agreement to backlog priorities with these Key Stakeholders and keep them informed of any significant impacts or deviations from forecasts.

Q. What defines success for a for a product owner?

A. Profitable products and satisfied customers.

  • Product releases deliver great value as perceived by customers and stakeholders
  • Balances feature delivery with sustainable software development
  • Stakeholder and team members understand rationale for prioritization and forecasting is visible and transparent
  • There are no surprises on progress, feature content and dates, or priority changes made along the way
  • Scrum Team members feel meaningful accomplishment from delivering “winning” features
  • Continuously learning and improving use of agile principles and practices
  • Deliver a product that is aligned with the roadmap

Product Owner Competencies

Q. What are the qualifications to become a Product Owner?

Q. What levels of experience would they have?

Q. What ‘behavioral skills’ would they demonstrate?

A. The following Starting Competencies are needed to become a Product Owner:

  • Relevant background
    • Industry and/or application domain knowledge
    • Or experience in some parallel or related business field
    • Experienced in customer interactions
    • Excellent listening, verbal and written communication skills
    • Negotiation skills with ability to compromise and balance tradeoffs among multiple interests
    • Proven leadership and decision making
    • Professional presentation skills
    • Familiar with Agile and Scrum principles and practices

Q. What skills and experience do I gain as a Product Owner?

Q. What are the skills we need in a Product Owner?  Must those skills be in one person?

Q. What competencies should a Product Owner demonstrate?

A. The following Performing Competencies are needed to do the Product Owner job well:

  • Subject matter expertise and sufficient market knowledge to understand customer wants and needs
  • Manage product backlogs with priority decisions that mitigate risk and maximize value while showing steady progress towards forecast results
    • Manages backlog content consistent with priorities agreed to with key stakeholders
    • Provides a visible forecast and notifies stakeholders of any significant changes in effort or risk
    • Create Feature and User Stories that represent “vertical slices” of value
    • Collaborates effectively with Scrum Master and Scrum Development Team
    • Engage both team and stakeholders to collaborate in release planning
    • Inspires commitment by communicating clear vision, direction, purpose, and goal for each release and sprint
    • Approachable and available to team members to answer detailed questions about requirements
    • Understand and represent the interests of customers and stakeholders such as: customer service, sales, development management, and executives
    • Engages and solicits their feedback to validate priorities and compromises
    • Constructive Conflict Resolution
    • Demand / assure accountability
    • Effective planning and forecasting in spite of the inevitable uncertainty and unknowns
    • Understands and applys Agile and Scrum principles and practices

Balances new feature delivery with high quality software while minimizing creation of additional technical debt for sustainable software development.

[Next we'll cover Product Owner Career Paths]

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