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Making the Product Owner Great Again

Helping your product owner achieve greatness

7 June 2017

In this article, I talk about what makes a great product owner. I also provide some tricks and techniques for empowering your product owner to be the greatest product owner he or she can be.

The product owner role

We all know that a product owner is someone who manages the product backlog and is responsible for creating the stories that the development team will work on. But what makes a product owner great? In my experience, the greatest product owner is a representative of the business, a senior person within the organization who has the power to make decisions on behalf of the greater good — and, of course, is the person with the vision and the funding.

Achieving greatness

There are a number of ways to help the product owner achieve greatness, and below are a few techniques I have used in the past.

Education is key.

As an Agile coach, I have worked with many organizations and their product owners by educating them about the product owner role, responsibilities, and individual level of commitment required. Commitment is something many organizations don’t realize they need until they see the level of interaction required from the product owner within the Scrum process. A product owner needs to be a champion of the product that is being built, manage stakeholder expectations, and also create and manage the product backlog items (PBIs). This can seem like a lot of work, but once this is understood, many organizations ensure that the product owner is 100% dedicated to working within the Scrum process and is not also managing other products or business units.

Business value matters.

Product owners often fall into the trap of prioritizing the product backlog based on what needs to be built first, second, and third, thus taking a linear approach. Although this may be one of the prioritization factors, it’s important to help your product owner also think in terms of business value and return on investment (ROI). While this may appear to be easy, it is quite difficult to achieve. One technique I have used to help product owners is to estimate business value in the same way the development team estimates complexity. After the product owner has estimated the business value and the team has estimated the complexity, the ROI can then be given a relative figure in dollars.

To arrive at the ROI, divide the business value by the complexity of the item (e.g., a business value of 20 divided by a complexity of 10 equals 2 ROI).This number can then be given a relative figure of, say, $10,000 ROI. Although this calculation may not be an accurate reflection of the true ROI, it can help the product owner understand where to place PBIs of higher or lower value. This technique not only helps the product owner think in terms of business value when prioritizing but also helps him or her gain respect for the level of complexity the development team has when estimating PBIs.

Scale the product owner role.

In the scenario wherein the organization has assigned a product owner who does not have the required business knowledge or does not have the time to provide the level of commitment required by the Scrum process and the development team, there are a number of options that you can be apply.

After having read Roman Pichler's June 2016 article titled "Scaling the Product Owner Role," I implemented Scaling Option 1, where the product owner becomes what I like to call the "strategic product owner" who is responsible for ensuring that what is built aligns with the product strategy, road map, and stakeholders' needs, while still being involved in managing the product backlog and its prioritization.

The concepts of feature and component owners are introduced in the process. These new roles fulfill the role of the product owner on a particular product or feature while it is being built. These owners work with the team in describing the business need and validating what is being built. It is expected that the feature or component owner communicates with the strategic product owner throughout the process and that they together align the priorities and PBIs that the team will work on next.

Give the product owner a "sidekick."

On many of the engagements I have worked on, I have encouraged the development team to work together with the product owner and assist him or her in creating PBIs together while interacting with the users and business areas. In doing so, this collaboration ensures not only that the creation and refinement of PBIs continue but it also helps the development team gain an understanding of the business need and value that the PBI provides.

Although this is a great concept, it is not always ideal for the whole team to be spending all their time creating PBIs. In that scenario, I have given the product owner a "sidekick" (like Batman's Robin) — someone who works in the shadows to ensure that the product owner is achieving what he or she has set out to achieve. I have found that people within the development team who have user experience or an analyst's skill set are great for assisting the product owner in understanding the business needs by conducting workshops, surveys, interviews, and even developing living designs. These activities then enable meaningful conversations and provide a shared understanding of what needs to be built.


In summary, I believe it is most important to work on developing and continuing to grow a relationship whereby the product owner and the whole Scrum Team trust each other and support each other to fulfill the responsibilities of their roles.

Promote the positive things that bring us together, and concentrate on what makes us all great!

Feel free to ask questions about anything covered in this post and provide comments or feedback based on your own experiences in implementing techniques that help your product owner achieve greatness.

Thomas Button, "Key Dimensions of User Stories." Scrum Alliance, January 2012. /

William Lester, "UX in Scrum." Canberra Agile & Scrum User Group, 2017.

Roman Pichler, "Scaling the Product Owner Role." Scrum Alliance, June 2016.

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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