Product Ownership is Hard

Scrum’s Product Owner has had an interesting journey over the years. At first, the Product Owner was a person outside the Scrum Team who had big responsibilities: The Product Owner “is the person who is officially responsible for the project” (Schwaber and Beedle, Agile Software Development with Scrum, 2002, pg 34), and The Product Owner is “the person responsible for managing the Product Backlog so as to maximize the value of the Project” (Schwaber, Agile Project Management with Scrum, 2004, pg 142).

Sometime later, the Product Owner was moved onto the Scrum Team and was made “responsible for maximizing the value of the work that the Scrum Team does” (Schwaber, Scrum Guide, May 2009, pg 3), which is a much more tactical responsibility.

Recently, the Product Owner (while remaining on the Scrum Team) has been given her big responsibilities back. She is now “responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team” (Schwaber and Sutherland, The Scrum Guide, July 2013, pg 5).

What does this mean? I’d like to explore…

What does it mean to maximize the value of the Product? What makes the Product Valuable? I can think of two things:

  1. The Product, once released, has features that provide value to users. In other words, what the software actually does is valuable.
  2. Product Increments are used every Sprint to elicit meaningful feedback from Stakeholders. This feedback is used to mitigate and minimize various risks: the risks of developing the ‘right thing’, architectural risks, and so on.

So, the Product Owner needs to manage the Backlog in order to maximize the value of the features that will be released, and to maximize the value of the feedback in mitigating risks.

Now, how about the ‘maximize the value of the work of the Development Team’ part? What does the Development Team spend its time on, anyway? It’s actually a short list:

  • The Development Team is developing (discovering, building, and releasing) Features;
  • The Development Team is maintaining/increasing its Velocity through managing/reducing Impediments; and
  • The Development Team needs some slack – time that allows Team Members room to think, innovate, and reinvent themselves.

Maximizing the value of this work requires balancing these activities and, as indicated above, is the responsibility of the Product Owner.

So, let’s summarize. The Product Owner is responsible to manage the Product Backlog in order to:

  1. Maximize the value of features to be released;
  2. Maximize the value of feedback from the Sprint Reviews; and
  3. Maximize the value of Impediment-removal work.
  4. I note that the slack issue is taken care of through the Team’s self-organization.

Wow! This is a lot of stuff to be worried about when managing the Backlog, and I’m not sure they can all be simultaneously maximized… Luckily, the Product Owner has the Team to help. Let me just quote the July 2013 Scrum Guide to end this post…

The Product Owner is the sole person [Scrum Team Member] responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:

  • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and,
  • Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.