Product Owner looking at a whiteboard

What Is the Product Owner Role in Agile Projects?


In traditional waterfall projects, all requirements need to be identified and fixed upfront while deviations must pass the change management processes. This is not the case in agile projects: teams applying agile approaches claim to embrace changes and often actively seek feedback on products and increments to enhance and improve them during the project. In such an environment, a product owner is responsible for the management and prioritization of product requirements.

While the background and skill set of a product owner may differ across the industries, her/his responsibility in a project remains similar. However, the different agile methodologies and frameworks define slightly deviating responsibilities of a product owner which we will introduce in this article.

The Product Owner Role in a Nutshell

What Is a Product Owner in Agile Projects?

In agile projects, a product owner is representing the business side within the project team to ensure that the software, product or service created by the development team meets the requirements of the stakeholders. This involves usually the management and prioritization of a backlog of requirements, the provision of clarification and advice to the developers as well as involvement in testing, acceptance and presentation of results to the stakeholders.

While this short generic definition is applicable to all approaches, the detailed responsibilities and the name of the role vary among the agile frameworks and approaches. Read for more detailed role descriptions in Scrum, Scrum of Scrums, Disciplined Agile Delivery, Scaled Agile Framework and Extreme Programming (XP).

Differences between Product Owner and Product Manager Roles

The terms product owner and product manager are sometimes used interchangeably in daily language. SAFe is the only framework covered in this article that defines a clear differentiation between both roles. In practice and outside Scaled Agile environments, there are also certain differences – we have covered those in a dedicated article:

The Foundation of Product Ownership: Customer Collaboration in Agile Manifesto

The foundation of product ownership in the Agile Manifesto can be find in two places:

The value “customer collaboration over contract negotiation” implies that the customer is collaborating with the development team, in case of product ownership represented by a product owner.

One of the 12 principles suggests that “business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project” (source) which specifies a collaboration on a daily basis. This may require the customer/business people being available or, at the next level, joining the team. Many product owner definitions among the agile approaches suggest exactly this: Having a product owner as a representative of the customer and/or the business in the agile project team.

The Concept and Responsibilities of Product Ownership in Different Agile Frameworks

Product Owner in Scrum

In Scrum, a business owner’s goal is to maximize the value of the increment created by the team. Therefore, her/his is responsible for managing and prioritizing the product backlog which is the basis for the sprint backlog that defines the target scope of each iteration. In addition, the product owner provides clarifications and responses to the development team and presents the increments to the stakeholders during the review meeting. The Scrum Guide requires the role to be taken on by one single person which however represents the interests of stakeholders or even committee. Read more about the role in our article on Scrum.

Product Owners in Scrum of Scrums (SoS)

Scrums of Scrums is a scaled derivative of the generic Scrum framework. Several Scrum teams work in the same project by building a Scrum of Scrums: The teams apply the generic framework while an overall Scrum of Scrums team has a designated Scrum master and overall product owner with the team consisting of the Scrum master and other member(s) of each single Scrum team, usually involving each team’s product owner.

The generic responsibilities of a product owner are basically the same as in Scrum. However, product releases will need to be discussed and harmonized across the different Scrum teams. In this context, the product owner of a Scrum of Scrums (also unofficially referred to as meta or chief product owner) is responsible for managing cross-backlog interdependencies and increment deliveries (source: Robert Galen: Scrum Product Ownership).

Product Owner in Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD)

Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) is a framework within the Disciplined Agile framework that consists of different layers (besides DAD, these are Disciplined DevOps, Disciplined Agile IT, Disciplined Agile Enterprise). DAD is a hybrid framework that combines elements from Scrum with techniques and strategies from Agile Modeling, Extreme Programming (XP) and other agile frameworks. DAD emphasizes the creation of “consumable solutions” rather than potentially shippable software/products, as suggested by the Scrum theory (source).

The role of a product owner in Disciplined Agile Delivery, which is often used for complex projects with a large number of requirements and requested features, covers the following tasks and responsibilities (source):

  • Representing the requirements of the stakeholder community in a DAD project,
  • maintaining and prioritizing a list of work items that will be developed and delivered by the team,
  • providing the development team with answers, advice and clarifications on the product requirements and seeking stakeholders’ answers or input where necessary,
  • supporting the team’s development of work items with advice and clarifications,
  • (re)presenting the agile team’s output to the stakeholder community which includes e.g. software demos and project status reports.

Only one single product owner is allowed for each DAD team or each sub-team in case of a team-of-teams structure.

Product Owner as the “Customer Proxy” in Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)

While many other agile frameworks focus on the software or product development (defining this more or less broad, though), SAFe aims to scale agile principles to the enterprise level. Thus, the Scaled Agile Framework provides the Big Picture and comprehensive approaches to implement Agile in organizations.

A product owner is defined as a member of the agile team with responsibility for the user stories and the backlog as well as in the quality assurance. She/he is supposed to work closely with the product management and is also referred to as the “customer proxy”.

The responsibilities of a Product Owner in SAFe include:

  • Being Member of the extended product management team,
  • involvement in the program increment planning,
  • managing and refining the team backlog, incl. review and reprioritization (in iteration planning)
  • while team members are turning backlog items into stories and acceptance criteria, the product owner has the responsibility for the management and maintenance and supports the team in doing so,
  • sole responsibility for accepting stories as “done”,
  • participating in team demos and retrospective and supporting the system demo preparation for stakeholders

While the SAFe framework recognizes the role of a market- and customer-focused product manager, a product owner represents the product management’s strategic perspective in the operational development process (Source: © Scaled Agile, Inc., description of product owner role in SAFe).

Product Owner Equivalent in Extreme Programming (XP)

Extreme programming does not mention a product owner rule but assigns comparable responsibilities to so-called customer(s). One of the ground rules of XP is that the customer is “always available” and also a part of the team – therefore, XP suggests one or multiple customers (experienced experts) be assigned to join the development team. The tasks include (source):

  • Developing user stories with support by the team,
  • determining their respective priorities and ensuring that the desired requirements are reflected in those user stories,
  • negotiating the set of user stories that will be covered by a release during release planning meetings,
  • “trying” the system and increments at the end of each incremental release and provide feedback to the development team,
  • being contact point for and providing advice to the development team given that user stories supposedly do not cover all details,
  • supporting the functional testing, and
  • deciding whether the system will go live (or not).

Although the “customer” is an XP-specific role, it shows a number of similarities to the product owner role under other agile approaches. Deviating from Scrum and DAD, XP allows that more than one “customer” joins the development team.

Conclusion

While the different frameworks use slightly deviating definitions of product ownership, the fundamental goals are broadly identical and also in line with the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto: A product owner represents the customer’s interests in a project, prioritizes requirements and defines and explains them in detail to the development team.

While waterfall projects require exhaustive requirements specifications and documentation, a product owner can replace the need for this in an agile project: She/he serves as a human contact point for the development team to clarify details and support software development in line with the goals of a project and the expectations of the stakeholders.