Organizational Insights and Comments on the Agile Product Owner Role

Mike Cottmeyer (www.leadingagile.com) recently added some insightful comments on this prickly topic that I thought were worth highlighting.

I am coming to the conclusion that the Agile PO is actually three roles combined: the traditional Product Manager, the Project Manager, and the Business Analyst.…. how do we decide who is the single accountable person for the team, even when the team is small.   It seems that the Agile PO is collaboration between Product Manager, BA, and Project Manager… with maybe someone playing multiple roles. That is on a small team…. what about now at scale?  Your  PO is really a collaborative effort between a PO (and PM) structure that is likely multilevel, with each level having some combination of the three roles and maybe an enterprise architect.

This comment crisply highlights the challenge and opportunity implied by the critical and yet overloaded role of the PO in agile/Scrum. To wit:

  1. The PO role is an important new construct which provides a single point of focus to the team that defines “what it is we will be building”. Eliminating the problem of conflicting inputs from multiple sources provides a) efficiency leverage for the team, b) enhanced empowerment via team-based control of  product conceptual integrity and c) a clear and unambiguous set of priorities
  2. However, it also creates many problems in the process. After all, how would we expect architects, project managers, business analysts, product managers, etc. to respond to the new rule: “you no longer tell the team what to build or the details of how to implement it, that all must go through the Product owner from now on”.

Wouldn’t we expect this to cause some serious problems? Especially in the larger enterprise context where the roles (and titles) are well established, empowered, likely quite capable, and are codified in the existing HR/career development ladder? No wonder the PO challenge is so great!

However, having said all that, we should make no mistake about the fact that implementing the PO role (largely as defined in Scrum) it is the right challenge for the agile enterprise and it must be addressed for agile success.

You can see more of Mike’s thoughts on this topic at www.leadingagile.com. I’ve added his blog to my blog roll as well.

2 thoughts on “Organizational Insights and Comments on the Agile Product Owner Role

  1. Good comments on this topic.

    As the details of the PO role for Agile success will vary, let’s not label the role as a “Product Owner”. The “Product Planner” replacement as I suggested in a comment to Dean’s earlier post is more fitting and less ambiguous given the nature of the role. This is important when attempting to hire for such a collaborative and product development skillset. This will help eliminate confusion (Product Owner versus Product Manager) within the profession of Product Management.

    Michael J. Salerno
    Co-founder, Boston Product Management Association

    • Michael,
      I don’t necessarily disagree in principle, as there can be no doubt of the role/title confusion we are having at present. However, with Scrum training dominating way more more than 50-70% of agile rollouts (at least in my experience) and with the title/role so clearly articulated there as well as within the popular Scrum books (though not without the issues I’ve been describing in this post series), it seems like renaming the role is not a battle worth fighting. In the end, market momentum tends to win.
      –Dean

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