Monday, March 23, 2015

The Product Owner role in business application development

At the core of all agile/lean practices is the minimization of work in progress (WIP). The more WIP you have the less visibility and control over the actual output of work. You may have made a major error which has not yet been discovered and will result in reworking all other current work in progress. If your WIP is small (hours or days) than you have minimized this impact. If your WIP spans several months you may have a huge task ahead of you. The top three things required to manage WIP down are:

  • Quick decisions - we need to be able to turnaround a question or clarification to a decision quickly, if not it is all too easy to just start on the next piece of work or make assumptions to keep moving
  • Regular checking - when we have a requirement for quick decision we need to accept that some may be wrong (and we need to change direction). We can only confirm we're heading in the right direction with regular checking (automated and manual) to maintain the confidence that the WIP is complete.
  • A team culture that focuses on collaboration - A command / control process with many 'quality' gates slows down progress and drives up WIP. To turn around a decision to a deliverable requires a highly collaborative approach where contributions from all parties are encouraged.

In Scrum, the Product Owner role plays a critical part in all three of these and is almost entirely responsible for the first two. So it's critical that you get a Product Owner on the project that truly understands their role. This role needs to combine authority (to make low to mid level decisions without the need to convene committees) and speed of decision making (so that WIP is minimized). So in theory the perfect Product Owner has complete authority to make decisions and is available to turn around those decisions quickly (same day at minimum)


Whilst this is certainly achievable in small organisations or software solutions that support a small silo in an organisation, in most reasonable sized business projects this position doesn't naturally exist and all too often we don't identify a single Product Owner and adopt alternate methods:

  • The IT project manager (or Scrum Master) assumes the role with inevitable consequences. Assumptions are made to keep the delivery moving and WIP down, business users reject those assumptions later and rework is required, which will lead the project manager to become more cautious and require signoff from stakeholders, eventually moving the role to a low authority / low speed point - exactly the opposite of where we want it.
  • A steer co is setup to handle decisions. Whilst this is appropriate at a high level (should we undertake this project or not) it is not appropriate for the minutiae of decisions required during a project and results in a very slow decision making process and driving up WIP in an attempt to maintain delivery pace.
  • Alternate options include an Executive sponsor (not highly available, but with authority) or
  • Relying on stakeholders - usually more available and responsive than execs, but if there are more than a couple the decision making authority is completely diluted.


With none of the above options being ideal, a Product Owner should be appointed with:

  • Authority from steer co and sponsor to make decisions on their behalf (monthly steer co sessions to keep them on track)
  • Knowledge of the stakeholders business processes and the ability to look ahead in the project backlog and consult with them on future requirements
  • A close working relationship with the IT project manager (or scrum master or scrum team) to provide fast turnaround on clarifications / decisions to keep them moving in the right direction



Getting as close as possible to the ideal Product Owner is probably the single biggest factor in successfully delivering agile solutions. I've been lucky enough to have worked with a few business people who are 'naturals' in this role, but for each of them there are many more who fail either through indecision (I'll need to check with...) or abdication (Can't IT just figure it out?).

1 comment:

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