Five Challenges to Agile Planning: Part 2 of 5

Jonathan Kuipers | January 19, 2012

TWO: Clarifying the Role of “Product Owner”

The Challenge: Another critical challenge that can cause short and long term angst is in selecting, defining, and empowering the role of “Product Owner” in your new Agile process. Let’s accept that this is one tough role. They are responsible for being “the voice of the customer,” the evangelist and decision-maker, and the perfect blend of business acumen and technical savvy.

Should you select a product manager who has previously been the product champion and tradeshow extraordinaire – but doesn’t know Agile software development? Or perhaps you should select a project manager or program manager that understands software development and perhaps has heard you should do some focus groups. Or perhaps you should nominate a solid, innovative architect that can design a 20 billion-user system? Whatever the choice, the Product Owner is a critical role to drive priorities, approve software releases, and be a liaison between development and the rest of the company… and often the market. Selecting the wrong person or incorrectly defining the product owner role leaves your Agile team limping along, or worst, at the whims of a control freak bent on driving personal opinions into the product.

The Solution: The role of Product Owner is indeed challenging. You should think about it more as a set of activities, interactions and desired outcomes rather than a job title and structure your team and responsibilities accordingly. As a “Product Owner”, one of their main roles is spending a significant amount of time directly with the development team. They must participate in every iteration review (often multiple meetings per week), write and review use cases, help write and approve test cases, and be available to review and approve software releases. This is a very hands-on role that requires serious time and commitment. If someone is this engaged with the development team, who is doing all that important market and customer work? It has be someone, or expect to fail. Someone, such as a Product Manager or Product Marketing Manager must take this more business-focused role and be the ying to the Product Owner’s yang. Getting these two roles in a room to work out how they will work together and how decisions will be made at the very tactical level is a key step to success. One tip – have the Product Manager participate in planning meetings, agree on priorities and implementation, then allow a more technical Product Owner to drive day-to-day decisions, write use cases, and approve test cases. Have them sync back up for software releases, and then fix any conflicts with the next Sprint. If one person is responsible for all of these activities, only a superhero will be successful except on small projects or in much-defined markets.

Read part 1, 2, 3, 45 or download “The Five Challenges to Agile Planning” whitepaper.