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What is the role of the Product Owner in Agile?

The Product Owner performs a critical function in an Agile delivery team. So how do you find the right person for the job, and how can you maximise the value of this role to produce the best possible outcomes?

Jase Watson

By Jase Watson & Amanda Pooley-Brand, 16 March 20225 minute read

The Agile delivery model is fundamentally about creating seamless continuity between product strategy and product development. In the context of digital development, it’s about ensuring that all elements of a delivery team – both client-side and agency-side – are aligned in their vision for the product (the ‘product’ in this case being the digital experience). For this to happen, there needs to be a strong partnership between agency and client. Central to this is the role of the Product Owner.

What is a Product Owner?

The Product Owner is a client-side representative nominated to work with the agency on a day-to-day basis to ensure that the product vision is accomplished as effectively and efficiently as possible. The Product Owner (PO) is essentially the main point of contact within the client organisation. 

The PO is a communicator and collaborator, providing clarity of mission and purpose across both the client and agency teams. This person is effectively the ‘CEO’ of the product. They should have a deep understanding of the vision for the product, and the needs and pain points of its users. 

As well as having a technical understanding of the product, they also need to understand its strategic objectives and be able to prioritise features based on their alignment with these objectives. In addition, the PO needs to have enough autonomy and authority to facilitate rapid decision-making to keep the project on target. 

The PO is directly involved in the delivery process, continually guiding and calibrating priorities. They will be responsible for writing user stories, managing and prioritising the product backlog. As product iterations are delivered, the PO will be responsible for testing and making sure that the product meets the agreed acceptance criteria.

Who should be the Product Owner?

A PO may be drawn from a range of different areas within an organisation, from digital, to marketing, IT, UX or CX. As long as a person is able to perform the functions outlined above, they have the capacity to fulfil the role.

They will also need to be able to dedicate a significant proportion of their time to the role. The precise amount of time required will depend on the nature of the project, but in the case of an average website rebuild, the role would need to be at least close to full-time. 

The PO should also be senior enough in the organisation to have the authority to make quick decisions and engage relevant senior stakeholders where necessary. Ideally, a PO will have some control over the project budget and the authority to exercise discretion in relation to budgetary or scope modifications. At the same time, the PO needs to be someone with enough influence to have easy access to stakeholders when decisions need to be escalated, or senior stakeholders need to be brought in for consultation.

Is it necessary to have a single PO?

The short answer is yes, it is necessary to have one person to perform the role of PO. Having a single point of contact on the client side is the best way to ensure efficiency and clarity for both the agency and client. 

The PO will, of course, represent the views of many stakeholders within their organisation, but they are ultimately responsible for triaging features and presenting a clear and consistent vision to the delivery team. Having multiple Product Owners will bring differing priorities to the team, which will lead to confusion and inefficiency.

Project success factors 

The Product Owner is responsible for managing the fine balance of quality, speed of delivery and cost in a project. Click on the image below to see how a Project Success Slider can be used by a PO to convey their expections to the project team. (Source: Mountain Goat Software)

Mountain Goat Project Success Slider

What makes a great Product Owner?

Beyond the basic requirements of the role, a great Product Owner will:

  • have a good understanding of the product and market
  • be focused on, and engaged with, the user/end customer 
  • have a good technical understanding (but not necessarily a technical background)
  • be able to influence and manage stakeholder expectations 
  • be able to gather requirements and communicate the product roadmap
  • advocate for the customer, product, project and delivery teams
  • clearly identify and describe product backlog items in order to build a shared understanding of the problem and solution with the product development team
  • be able to remove organisational issues blocking the delivery team, including managing any work that needs to interface with other parts of the business (e.g. an internal CRM system)
  • be able to make decisions regarding the priority of product backlog items in order to deliver maximum outcome with the available time and resources
  • be prepared to make decisions with the data available, rather than waiting until all the facts are known, and be willing to continually seek feedback and iterate on the product
  • determine whether a product backlog item was satisfactorily delivered
  • ensure transparency into the upcoming work of the product development team
  • be available for all Agile events, including retrospectives, which are a democratic way to celebrate the wins and tweak ways of working, and
  • have a good understanding of analytics to assess the effectiveness of the product.

Ultimately, however, a PO cannot be great in isolation. Behind every successful PO is an organisation that is willing to support the role – allowing them to make decisions, access stakeholders where necessary, and empower them to deliver the best solution. 

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