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The mythical Product Owner


Perhaps one of the most important and perhaps lesser understood roles in Agile is that of the Product Owner - PO.

As a Scrum Master I've often been very fortunate to have had a fully engaged PO, Often these have been a key user of the system, Sometimes I've had the FD as PO and other times I've been fortunate enough to work with customers who have employed a full time PO to represent their needs...... And unfortunately sometimes I've had no PO or a proxy PO.

The PO should own the product and are responsible for it's delivery to the Stakeholders, They need to be available to the team and hopefully actively involved with the team. 

They are also the decision makers - They own the Product Backlog, they decide what features and stories are developed, the sequence and perhaps more importantly what stories are not developed! They need to understand the business their representing, the market and the customer/customer base.

In my opinion the PO has the following responsibilities to the team :-
  • To attend the Sprint planning session - I sometimes split this session in two, the first half for the PO to set the priority and theme for the Sprint, The second a more technical discussion and breakdown of stories into tasks which the PO doesn't need to be in attendance for.
  • To attend the Review meeting (Demo) at the end of the sprint, to run through the deliverables and to enforce the definition of done for the sprint - The Sprint Review
  • To regularly attend Back log refinement sessions once known as backlog grooming! It's good if they can observe the estimation process, answer any questions the Scrum team might have and perhaps challenge or query estimates.... However the estimation process is the domain of the Scrum team not the PO and it's the Scrum Master's responsibility to ensure the PO understands this and doesn't attempt to influence the process.  I also like to combine story-writing workshops within this ceremony. 

They may also optionally attend the following :-
  • The Retrospective - Their input can also be very useful in this ceremony... However experience has taught me that you need to handle the PO carefully in these meetings - The Scrum team should be self organising and PO's do have a habit of trying to interfere with this process! So invite them by all means but this meeting is primarily one for the Scrum Team and ensure that you have some 'private meetings' without their attendance.
  • A fully engaged PO should want to attend the daily stand-up - The rules of the stand-up dictate that the PO is a silent observer (Unless asked a question) However in reality allowing the PO to ask questions at the end of stand-up helps to ensure good communication between the team and the PO and may help to identify problems early!   - The Daily Stand-up

In addition to attending ceremonies/meetings they also 'own' the following artefacts :-
  • The Product Backlog - They are responsible for the existence and maintenance of this document.
  • The Sprint Goal - I usually ask the PO to turn up to the Sprint planning session with a single one line statement that sums up the goal of the sprint - The Sprint goal
  • The Vision Statement - For each phase of a project I ask the PO to supply a Vision Statement - This should serve to galvanise the entire team to be working towards one well understood and defined objective - The Vision Statement

The PO is ultimately responsible for the delivery of the product, what it includes and what it doesn't include. However the PO has no say in how the team is ran or organised nor how much the team commits to in each sprint.

The PO should however constantly challenge the team to deliver more and where appropriate challenge the team and their estimates (always in a polite manner)

When the process works well there should be some degree on tension between the PO and the Scrum Master - With the PO pushing to deliver the best product quicker and the Scrum Master protecting the team by ensuring that a sustainable pace is maintained and that technical debt is kept to a minimum or at least understood and recognised.

Having a fully engaged, business savvy PO is often the key differentiator between average teams and teams that make Agile great!