by Natalie Beecroft

What's the role of a product owner?

The Product Owner takes a product from concept to creation. 

As outlined in the Scrum Guide, the Product Owner is accountable for maximising the amount of work done by the Scrum Team (or Development Team). How this is done can vary widely. Mainly, the Product Owner must communicate the Product Goal and effectively coordinate their team. 

Product owner responsibilities 

The Product Owner is central to completing a project successfully in Scrum. The align the time-boxed workflow with customer requirements and define the work that needs to be done. 

Product Owners are responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Their main duties include: 

  • communicating the Product Goal clearly and effectively. 
  • creating and explaining Product Backlog items, or user stories. 
  • ordering these items by deadline and dependency to best achieve goals. 
  • ensuring the Product Backlog is visible, shows what the team will work on next, and is understood by all. 

The Product Owner may do the above work – or they may have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable. Therefore, for Product Owners to succeed, the entire organisation must respect their decisions. 

The Product Owner must also be one person, not a committee of people. They have sole responsibility for the organisation of the Product Backlog, so if anything needs to be changed in the backlog, the Development Team coordinate with the Product Owner. They are the only person who can either give the go-ahead for change, or recommend another course of action. 

What skills does a product owner need?

A Product Owner needs to have a variety of skills. A good Product Owner needs to learn how to influence their audience. It’s therefore worthwhile for them to spend time understanding their stakeholders. Other skills include being a visionary and pro-active doer, acting as both a leader and team player, and being a skilled communicator and negotiator. A great Product Owner is also a problem solver and decision maker, as well as an empowered and committed individual. They must trust their team, maintain team spirit, and be decisive: the Product Owner makes decisions daily based upon customer feedback, market conditions, and sometimes just gut instinct. 

Product goals

The Product Goal is the imagined future state of the product being built. The Product Backlog serves to answer what will be done to fulfil the Product Goal. 

What is a product backlog? 

A Product Backlog is a list of new features, changes, fixes, or any other activities that a team undertakes to deliver an outcome, and therefore value. Everything that gets done should be recorded in the Product Backlog. It is created collaboratively, as an ordered list, with the customer in mind. Each entry is called a Product Backlog Item (PBI), which have the attributes of a description, order, estimate, and value. The Product Backlog items often take the form of user stories – learn more here. 

The Product Backlog is dynamic. It is constantly changing to identify what the product needs in order tp be appropriate, competitive, and useful. PBIs can be added​ and removed​, and the Product Backlog can be reordered​ or further detail added​. 

Managing a product backlog

Once you have your set of PBIs, you’ll need to order them and assign them to the team. Make sure your Product Backlog is DEEP. DEEP is an acronym used to describe the qualities of a Product Backlog: Detailed appropriately, Estimated, Emergent, and Prioritised. 

The team must also agree on a Definition of Done. As detailed in the Scrum Guide, when a Product Backlog item or an Increment is described as ‘Done,’ everyone must understand what ‘Done’ means. Although this may vary per team, everyone must have a shared understanding of what it means for work to be complete.   

The role of product owners in agile

Product Ownership occurs at multiple levels. ICAgile uses the term Agile Product Ownership to refer to work done at the level of a single initiative, project, or team, and Enterprise Product Ownership to apply to a broader enterprise focus. 

The term ‘Agile Product Owner’ is used to indicate someone doing the activities of Agile Product Ownership in a specific context – they are applying Agile principles to their work. It is a role taken by a team member at a point in time as needed, not necessarily a job title.   

Difference between a product owner and a product manager 

The Product Owner is more focused on product goals. They are concerned with the Product Manager’s vision, how to achieve it, and guiding the Development Team on what they should be doing. The Product Owner is specifically in charge of the Product Backlog. 

The Product Manager, however, is concerned with the business as a whole. They oversee the entire product management process and are primarily concerned with enabling the business to reach its wider goals. They own the business strategy behind the product, specify its requirements, and manage the launch of any new features. They help to create and refine the Product Backlog, but the Product Owner owns it. 

 

Product Owner 

Product Manager 

Focused on product goals 

In charge of the Product Backlog 

Focused on wider business goals 

In charge of business strategy 

 

Difference between a product owner and project manager 

Although there is a lot of overlap between the responsibilities of a Product Owner and a Project Manager, it’s important to separate the two roles.  

What is the difference between a product and a project? 

A product is permanent, undergoes continual improvements and adaptive (or iterative) planning, is driven by value, has a long-lived feature team and adapts to evolving customer needs. 

A project, however, is more short-term. It has a one-off delivery, a beginning and end date, undergoes predictive (or up-front) planning, has set requirements, and the scope of the plan drives the work. 

The table below summarises these differences. 

A Product Owner does, however, share some of the attributes of the Product Manager, such as product planning, visioning, setting business value, and working with the customer. 

 

Product Owner

Project Manager

Permanent (until decommissioned) 

Continual improvements 

Value drives the work 

Adaptive planning (iterative) 

Long-lived feature team 

Evolving customer needs 

Short-term-project team 

One off delivery 

Beginning and end date 

Predictive planning (up-front) 

Project requirements 

Scope of the plan drives the work 

 

The Product Owner and product ownership is not the same as project management – a Product Owner has a different view of the work being carried out. 

Product Ownership is very strategic, maybe more so than Project Management, and encompasses even more than is defined in the Scrum Guide. 

Product-focused roles are normally seen as a strategic market- or customer-focused role, whereas project management is more focused on making sure the day-to-day work is being done.  

Product Management is focused on value consistently driving the work. Whereas to a Project Manager, value is something that may be delivered after their work is complete, post-project. 

The table below summarises these differences. 

The Product Owner role does, however, share some of the attributes of a Project Manager, such as release planning, resource provisioning, and vendor relationships​. 

 

Product Owner 

Project Manager 

Focused on customer and market trends 

Understands business and UX 

Evaluated on the success of the product 

Manages the product roadmap 

More focused on the ‘why’ 

Drives creativity 

Value is delivered continually 

Focused on day-to-day, the how and when 

Focus on employees and resources 

Evaluated on success of the plan 

Drives structure 

Plans, delegates, monitors and controls 

Participates in discussions at a detailed level on a regular basis to facilitate cross-team interaction 

Value may be delivered after the work is complete 

 

Difference between a product owner and scrum master 

The Scrum Master is the authority – or master, quite literally – of Scrum methodology. They are responsible for leading the Agile Development Team, ensuring the Scrum team members are following Scrum principles, and improving Scrum processes throughout the Sprint. They help to remove any impediments for the Development Team.  

The Scrum Master acts as a mediator between the Product Owner and the Development Team. They serve the Scrum Team, their organisation, and the Product Owner, relaying any updates to the Product Owner. They also lead any daily Scrum meetings; they plan and manage sprints and handle other Scrum events. 

The Product Owner manages the Product Backlog and ensures the organisation is working towards gaining maximum value from the product. 

Once the Product Owner and Product Manager have created and refined the product roadmap, the Scrum Master is in charge of bringing the vision to life. 

The Product Owner and Scrum Master are partners in delivering a releasable, high-quality increment at the end of every sprint. The Product Owner and Scrum Master often influence each other and sometimes have overlapping responsibilities. 

 

Product Owner 

Scrum Master 

In charge of the Product Backlog and sets product value 

Develops a product vision or goal 

Leads daily Scrum meetings and events 

Ensures the team is following Scrum principles 

 

 

Does a product owner write user stories? 

User storiesare short, simple descriptions of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or customer of the system. They typically follow a simple template: As a < type of user >, I want < some goal > so that < some reason >.   

Generally, a user story is written by the Product Owner. Creating user stories is one of the most important responsibilities of the Product Owner. It involves working with internal and external stakeholders, as well the product roadmap, to create a user story. During a sprint, the team will decide what stories they will tackle. 

The acronym INVEST is useful when determining the quality of a user story. Is the user story: Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small enough, and Testable? If it isn’t one of these things, the Product Owner is advised to reword it. 

 

Product owner training 

How to become a better product owner 

If you love creating and delivering great products and motivating a team, being a Product Owner could be for you! 

There are many resources available to enable you to become a better Product Owner. 

1. Get clued up about Scrum and Agile methodologies. 

A great Product Owner needs to know Scrum inside and out. You should have a good understanding of the Scrum Framework: its accountabilities, events, values, pillars, and artefacts. Good resources are the Scrum Guide and the Agile Framework, but also the QA website! 

2. Enroll on a training course. 

Type in ‘Product Owner’ to the QA search bar to find courses which can help you refine your skills as a Product Owner. A few of the relevant courses on offer are listed below. 

Product owners summary

    • A Product Owner is in charge of maximising the amount of work done by the Development Team.
    • They are in charge of managing the Product Backlog. They are the only person who owns it.
    • They are focused on the customer and market trends and make changes to the Product Backlog accordingly.
    • Product Owners and Product Managers are slightly different. While a Product Manager’s focus is more on the wider business, the Product Owner is more concerned with the specific product.
    • Product Owners and Project Managers are also different. While a Project Manager is evaluated on the strength of their plan, a Product Owner is evaluated on the strength of the product. For a Project Manager, value is delivered right at the end of the work. For a Product Owner, value should be delivered continuously.
    • The Product Owner and the Scrum Master work closely together but have different roles. The Scrum Master is the leader of the Development Team and any Scrum events and relays any updates to the Product Owner.
    • Product Owners also write user stories.
    • Learn Scrum and Agile principles inside and out, and enroll in one of QA’s training courses to become a better Product Owner.

 

Discover product owner training and courses