August 11, 2015 // By Magenic
I have been really excited to see businesses truly begin to embrace the Product Owner role as they take on agile projects. This is almost a “last link in the puzzle” to delivering projects in a highly-flexible, collaborative way. The promise of rapid delivery, quicker response to business changes, and shorter time to begin ROI realization have lured many businesses to chase agile, yet the lack of investment in the Product Owner role has kept these benefits out of reach, leading some companies to come to the conclusion that agile doesn’t work.
Often the confusion stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Product Owner role and the activities and disciplines that need to be employed. Businesses and leaders who have not been through the process successfully will naturally gravitate to that which is familiar and it’s not their fault. For years, they have relied on Product Managers to define and advocate through the product lifecycle and it is tempting to simply see the Product Owner as a new word for the same role.
In fact, we in the Agile community are sometimes guilty of talking about the Product Owner role in those terms because it is relatable to business leaders and it can bring a sense of security as they will think of the people they have trusted with the product leadership while we are speaking. This is further complicated by the fact that in some cases, these two roles might be filled by the same person or people. There is, however a fundamental difference between the two.
The Product Manager is a strategic role that is responsible for the overall vision, economics, ROI, and direction of the product. This role is a primary stakeholder and is the heart and mind of the product, driving it forward to fulfill the goals of the business.
The Product Owner has different goals, working with the Agile team to drive the development forward enabling the team to be able to fulfill its objectives. In this case the Product Owner is the hands of the product, the person who actually gets things done by enabling the team and setting the priority of the backlog, advocating for the product development, and ensuring that the work being done actually meets the product’s objectives.
This is the point where many Product Owners stop reading and jump down to the comments section saying, “Hey, Ryan, I am doing all of this. Clearly, they are the same.”
It is often the case that a strong Product Owner will have the experience with the business and the trust of the sponsors to play both roles. This is regularly effective and can be the hallmark of someone who has mastery of all aspects of the product lifecycle. Where this breaks down is in the reverse, were only the Product Manager role is filled and too little attention is paid to story elaboration, backlog grooming, acceptance criteria development, and team interaction.
In a successful project, both roles must be filled and the business should have a vested interest in making sure that both are covered. Without a Product Manager, scope creep, requirements divergence, gold-plating, and missed ROI occurs. Without the Product Owner the team can be rudderless and the Agile process, if not the company’s whole Agile initiative, can fail. Neither is a risk worth taking.
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