IT agencies are already familiar with the roles and responsibilities of their project teams, from Project Manager, Backend developer, and Frontend developer to Quality Assurance and Designer. However, adding a Product Owner to the mix can cause management overflow and overall team confusion.
This blog post is to ease the pain of every Product Owner that is constantly trying to explain the responsibilities to other team members but not succeeding and to give the bigger picture of how projects can benefit from this role.
Who is a Product Owner?
The role of a Product Owner is crucial in product development. Acting as a liaison between the development team and stakeholders, the Product Owner ensures that the team maximizes the product’s value while aligning with the product vision and predefined goals.
One of the primary responsibilities of a Product Owner is to prioritize work effectively to enhance the product’s value. By understanding the customer’s needs and aligning them with the product vision, the Product Owner plays a pivotal role in creating and maintaining the product roadmap.
While the Product Owner role is closely associated with the SCRUM methodology, it is also present in other methodologies. For instance, in Kanban, the equivalent role is known as the Service Request Manager. Although the title may differ, the responsibilities remain the same – delivering value and ensuring customer needs and the product vision are met throughout the development process.
The Product Owner as the Captain
I always like to imagine the product as a boat where the Product Owner assumes the role of the captain. They are responsible for steering the course and driving the product toward its final destination—the product goal. Throughout the journey, storms may arise, and new routes may be discovered. The Product Owner’s role is to adapt the route efficiently, keeping the product aligned with the evolving needs and challenges.
What type of projects would benefit from having a Product Owner as a team member?
In many cases, the career path of a Product Owner starts from backgrounds such as Quality Assurance or Project Management. In fact, my journey followed a similar trajectory. Despite having a technical background, I never saw myself as a developer. Instead, I was always wondering if what we develop is really bringing value to the product, can we focus on bigger client pain points. This led to my increased engagement in the communication with stakeholders and product roadmap definition and prioritization. Even though I was titled as a Project Manager, most of my time was spent taking care of the Product Owner’s scope of work.
In smaller IT agencies, it’s not uncommon for one person to cover multiple roles, which can work well for some projects but pose challenges for others.
Long-Term Projects and Stakeholders with product vision
What happens when you have a long-term project with stakeholders with a defined vision and goals but lack a clear path to achieve them?
This scenario can pose significant challenges. Without someone dedicated to conducting discovery workshops, extracting valuable information from stakeholders, and prioritizing tasks to meet their needs and goals, the product may face difficulties right from the start. In such cases, a Project Manager can sometimes be conflicted, as they might prioritize team needs over customer needs and fail to prioritize work that brings the greatest value. This underscores the importance of having a close relationship between the person responsible for product roadmap and prioritization, stakeholders, customers, and the development team to ensure that the right product is being built.
Stakeholders without the product vision or goals
On the other hand, the Product Owner is also crucially important when dealing with stakeholders who have no defined vision or goals but possess a problem they want to solve. In such projects, the Product Owner, alongside the team, conducts discovery sessions to identify the most suitable solution. These projects often allow for more flexibility, enabling the team to provide suggestions and shape the product. However, it is essential to first establish the product vision, goals, and user personas in collaboration with the stakeholders before diving into development.
Projects with well-defined Stakeholder requirements
In cases where stakeholders have already defined everything, leaving no room for suggestions or input from the team, the Project Manager typically handles the project, while the Product Owner’s role is covered by the stakeholders themselves.
How to divide responsibilities between Project Manager and Product Owner?
As I currently work as a Product Owner on a long-term e-commerce project alongside a Project Manager, clearly defining the responsibilities of both roles was crucial, especially considering that the team was accustomed to having only a Project Manager in the past.
To address this, we embarked on creating a responsibility assignment chart known as the RACI matrix. During this process, we recognized the importance of close collaboration between the Product Owner and Project Manager while also establishing clear distinctions in their scope of work.
The Product Owner’s responsibilities:
- Keeping the backlog clean and prioritized.
- Roadmap management and tracking – to fit current priorities and needs.
- Adding new items to the backlog based on new discoveries.
- Maintaining close communication with stakeholders, team members, and, most importantly, customers to ensure a clear understanding of the product’s state.
- Providing support to the development team during the development phase by addressing any questions related to functionality.
- Conducting discovery workshops in collaboration with team members and stakeholders to define new features.
- Demonstrating newly implemented features to stakeholders.
- Release tracking and candidate proposals for the next release based on priorities and client expectations.
The Project Manager’s responsibilities:
- Fostering harmony within the team and building trust among team members.
- Assisting in removing obstacles for team members during the development phase.
- Facilitating team meetings, such as retrospectives, release planning, or daily stand-ups – some teams have Scrum Master for this or even let the team conduct the dailies alone. Still, it turned out as a best practice for us to have PM as a facilitator.
- Continuously improving project processes to align with the team and project needs.
- Providing client reporting on the project’s status and development progress.
- Monitoring the project budget and taking appropriate actions in case of potential budget issues.
Some agencies tend to have separate roles for meeting facilitation and ensuring their team follows Scrum principles thoroughly and properly. In some projects, it can be a great benefit since there’s no need for the Scrum Master to have domain knowledge and can be involved in multiple projects in parallel. Still, sometimes it can be overkill to employ a person only for this role, so it’s common practice to have Project Manager taking care of it. Striking the right balance between these roles becomes crucial to optimize project efficiency and effectiveness.
When you think there is not much work for one PO/PM/SM on a project, but then you realize:
That is why giving all these roles to one person can result in complete burnout.
While the theory of these roles makes complete sense, putting them into practice presents ongoing challenges. Team members often find themselves uncertain about whom to contact for specific types of questions, leading to statements like “tell it to the PM or PO, whoever should handle that.” Similarly, stakeholders may feel confused when interacting with two management roles, resulting in both being involved in various requests. To simplify matters, we communicated to everyone involved that for new features and functional questions, they should contact the Product Owner, while the Project Manager is available for other project-related inquiries, budgeting, and team organization.
After structuring the project setup in this manner, we now have a Project Manager who can focus on project-related tasks, mitigating the risk of budget overruns and ensuring clients are kept informed of the project’s status. Simultaneously, the Product Owner can concentrate on establishing clear priorities and ensuring team members understand their responsibilities and deadlines in meeting the product’s needs.
While this setup proves effective for our project, it may not seamlessly fit into other projects. However, it remains crucial for team members to collectively define and thoroughly understand their roles and responsibilities within the project.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that the Product Owner role was relatively unknown in IT agencies, often overshadowed by the responsibilities of Project Managers. This lack of dedicated product ownership often led to the development of wrong solutions, budget overruns, and chaotic processes. However, recognizing the need for a specialized Product Owner on a project can bring about massive improvements and increase product value. Just as you wouldn’t expect a Quality Assurance Engineer to develop the backend for an application, it is unrealistic to expect a Project Manager to manage the entire product development process single-handedly.
By having a dedicated Product Owner on complicated and long-term projects, there is focused expertise on product value increase, efficient prioritization, and scope management. Embracing the role of a Product Owner is a crucial step towards delivering successful products that meet the business’s and its customers’ needs.