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Transitioning to Scrum: Selecting the Product Owner

21 January 2010

John Clifford
Construx Software, Inc.

Transitioning to Scrum: Selecting the Product Owner

By John Clifford, CSM, CSPO, CSP
Construx Software, Inc.

Many teams moving to Scrum have questions about the Product Owner position. Is the Product Owner a member of the Scrum team? What role does the Product Owner play in the day-to-day life of a Scrum project? How do we map current functional roles to Scrum roles, specifically with regard to the Product Owner? Who should we select as our Product Owner?

Let me start by saying the Product Owner is perhaps the most important role in Scrum, something you don't often hear from Scrum folks. The Scrum process defines the Product Owner as being the person responsible for the team's return on investment, i.e., the Product Owner will be judged by whether the project's outcome justifies its cost. Another, more direct way of saying this is to identify the Product Owner as "The Single Wring-able Neck," or the person whose head is on the figurative chopping block if the project fails. Interestingly, the Project Management Institute has a similar definition for project managers: the person assigned by the performing organization to achieve the project objectives (PMBOK Guide, 4th Edition, p13). Therefore, based upon both the Scrum and PMI definition, the Product Owner responsibilities are equivalent to those of a project manager. This is one reason why I have found knowledge and competence in project management to be a key ability of a successful Product Owner. Selecting a Product Owner therefore naturally starts with identifying candidates who have that knowledge.

There are other skills and abilities required, including sufficient technical knowledge to understand the problem domain and the technical aspects of proposed solutions. A successful Product Owner doesn't need to be the best software developer on the team, but he does need to be able to understand the technical decisions well enough to know whether they make sense. Eliminate candidates who lack sufficient technical ability.

Be especially careful not to view the Product Owner as the project's 'driver.' Scrum is about empowered, self-managing teams that are led (pulled) rather than driven (pushed). Scrum means never having to be driven. Candidates who can't or won't embrace the servant-manager philosophy, or who insist on directing the team should be disqualified. Nothing will cripple your Scrum implementation more than a de jure Product Owner who sees himself as a de facto team manager.

By now, you should have narrowed the candidate list to those who have demonstrable technical, project management, and interpersonal skills. Who among the remaining candidates has the ability to understand the customer, the market, and the business? Are there candidates with entrepreneurial experience? Owning a business, starting a business, or working in a leadership position at a startup where everyone wears a multitude of hats and understands making money is the true test of whether or not the customer is satisfied is invaluable. People with this experience understand what really matters because they've lived it. People who have had experience in customer support, QA/test, or sales and marketing at larger companies may also have an understanding of the customer.

Now you should be down to the final few candidates. I like the Toyota Production System concept of a 'Chief Engineer' with extensive technical, project management, and business knowledge who leads the team to successful project completion. We're talking about candidates with a software development background and successful project management experience, who have dealt effectively with the customer and understand business realities, and have the skills and experience to successfully act as a proxy for the customer and other stakeholders. Which of the remaining candidates most closely matches this description? If there is no one, have any of the candidates shown promise that they can develop to this level? If the answer is still "no," then you may want to hire someone with the necessary talents and skills to fill the position.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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