Can anyone be a product owner (PO)? What’s the best position in the company to fill that role? With Scrum you have one and only one product owner for a given product – not a committee, but the effectiveness of the product owner will vary depending on the PO’s organizational enablement, understanding of the product, and involvement with the Scrum team.
An Evaluation Matrix
Let’s talk about product owner effectiveness in the context of product knowledge and authority. We will measure authority and knowledge on the matrix below, where authority is the ability to change product functionality and set strategic direction, and knowledge is deep understanding of product strategy and nuts-and-bolts product application.
Q1: low knowledge, low authority
Q2: high knowledge, low authority
Q3: low knowledge, high authority
Q4: high knowledge, high authority
Quadrant Q1: PO as Order-Taker
In this quadrant, the product owner might be a business analyst who is only tangentially involved with the product. This PO has to rely on others for insight and needs approval to change or set directions. In this quadrant, product speed will depend on the decision maker’s ability to make decisions choices and the product owner’s ability to interpret the advice of product experts. A product owner in Q1 runs the risk of working slowly and building something rife with unsatisfactory features.
Quadrant Q2: PO as Constrained SME
Here, the product owner knows the product strategy and application well, but needs the approval of others to change direction. Though the PO might be a subject matter expert (SME), their ability to pivot product direction will be hindered by their need for approval from others who may not be as knowledgeable as the product owner. As a result, a Q2 PO will struggle getting rapid authorization to make a pivot. A product owner in Q2 will be slowed down but less likely to build poorly-functioning products compared to a Q1 PO.
Quadrant Q3: PO as the Empowered Strategist
This PO may be a vice president with freedom to set direction and make product functionality changes, but a limited understanding of the detailed application of the product. A product owner in this quadrant may have great strategy without the tactical insights to make the most valuable product. A Q3 PO’s decision-making speed is better than Q1 and Q2, but the risk of building a poor product is still a concern.
Quadrant Q4: PO as Mini-CEO
As a mini-CEO, the product owner can set product direction and make financial decisions. They are ultimately responsible for the value of the product. In this quadrant, everyone in the organization will respect the PO’s decisions. While this product owner can take advice from others in the organization, their decision is final and the rest of the Scrum team follows their direction. A PO in this quadrant also has the tactical and strategic knowledge to set the right direction.
Unfortunately, the person in Q4 may not have enough availability to be effective. The PO here may be tethered to the rest of the organization via a multitude of meetings or a flurry of reports. A PO here might also spend an inordinate amount of time with marketing specialists or customers, leading to insufficient involvement with the rest of the Scrum teams.
There is a third dimension in our matrix: involvement (availability). An insufficiently available mini-CEO may be tempted to delegate to a representative in Q1 or be forced into quadrant Q3. It is also quite possible for a product owner to be overly involved, crossing the line between describing the business’ needs and actually specifying implementation details. The Scrum guideline on product owner involvement is that the product owner invests enough team to get an acceptable return on investment from the development team. That’s pretty loose, but something that can only be determined by inspecting and adapting the amount of involvement by the PO.
There are, of course, many other factors that can come into play in determining PO effectiveness. These include the PO’s emotional intelligence, organizational standing, and communication skills. This model is intended to explain the factors that can contribute to product owner effectiveness and provide a guide for selecting effective POs.
Fortunately, the agile mindset’s focus on transparency, inspection, and adaptation provides the best answer for moving toward PO effectiveness. Why not use empiricism to enhance empiricism?
First, don’t wait to get the perfect product owner, or you’ll never be able to start using Scrum. Start where you are and improve from there. Even an uninvolved PO in Q1 is better than no PO at all.
After you have selected a PO, transparently assess their quadrant and involvement and make a plan to develop their behavior, knowledge, and organizational standing toward that of an appropriately-involved Q4 mini-CEO.
But don’t just stop when you think you have the perfect product owner with perfect availability. Circumstances change! The perfect product owner today may need further development tomorrow. Continually assess the product owner’s effectiveness while devising strategies for integration and improvement. Sounds like something to consider during the retrospective, doesn’t it?