What is a product owner? 5 key responsibilities to unlock Scrum team success

Porträtt av medarbetare Caeleigh MacNeilCaeleigh MacNeil20 januari 20228 min. läsning
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A product owner is a standard role on Scrum teams that focuses on delivering the best possible product. They connect the Scrum team to stakeholders and advocate for the needs of end users, so everyone understands what the product is trying to achieve and why. In this article, learn about the five key responsibilities of product owners and how they help Scrum teams accomplish their best work.

Imagine you’ve just bought a house. As a new homeowner, you’re now responsible for the long-term vision of what you want your property to be—like how to decorate, maintain, and improve your home to get the most out of your (hefty) investment. You coordinate with inspectors, builders, and house-mates to create the best living environment you can—all while balancing your finances and long-term goals. Phew. 

Like a homeowner, a product owner is responsible for long-term vision—but instead of improving their homes, they improve products. A product owner works with stakeholders (like your builders and housemates) to make the best possible product for end users. They determine what new features would bring the most value, then break those features up into actionable tasks for stakeholders to work on. 

What is a product owner? 

A product owner is a standard role on Scrum teams that focuses on delivering the best possible product to end users. To do this, product owners develop a vision of how the product should function, define specific product features, and break those features into product backlog items for the Scrum team to work on. The product owner is responsible for the completed product. Plus, they also act as a liaison between business stakeholders, Scrum team members, and end users. 

What is Scrum?

Scrum is an Agile project management framework that helps teams build and iterate quickly. It’s most commonly used by product, engineering, or software development teams—though any team can be successful using the Scrum framework. Scrum teams complete work in sprints, a fixed period of time (usually two weeks) when they focus on specific deliverables. After a sprint is over, the Scrum team incorporates their learnings and uses them to improve their process for the next sprint.

The product owner is one of three standard roles on a Scrum team: 

  • Product owner: Works with stakeholders, end users, and the Scrum team to make sure the end product meets user requirements and aligns with business goals. 

  • Scrum master: Leads the development team to help them prepare for and successfully execute sprints. Scrum masters also focus on continuously improving internal processes. 

  • Development team: Works on the deliverables that need to be completed for each sprint. Developers are the core of the Scrum team, since they’re responsible for completing product backlog items that translate into new product features.  

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Product owner vs. Scrum master

A product owner and Scrum master are two integral—but different—roles on a Scrum team. The Scrum master leads and improves the internal processes necessary for Scrum teams to complete their work. They’re focused on helping the team prepare for and successfully execute sprints, so developers can focus on their work instead of more logistical tasks. Scrum masters facilitate planning meetings, daily standups, and sprint retrospectives. As a team leader, they remove roadblocks for developers and keep everyone aligned with Scrum framework principles. 

On the other hand, the product owner role has a more external focus than the Scrum master. Instead of leading team processes, they’re more focused on the product itself—specifically how to create the best possible product for end users. To do this, they incorporate feedback from stakeholders and end users, then translate that feedback into specific product features and backlog items for the Scrum team to work on.

Product owner vs. project manager

The terms product owner and project manager sound similar, but there are some key differences between them. A project manager isn’t a standard role on a Scrum team. Typically, project managers focus on executing deliverables and managing resources for a project. If you imagine a project as a collection of tasks needed to accomplish a specific goal, a project manager helps teams plan, manage, and execute those tasks in order to accomplish a goal on time. 

This is different from a product owner, who is singularly focused on making a great product for end users—not coordinating daily work. On a Scrum team, both the product owner and Scrum master have some project management responsibilities. For example, the product owner creates product backlog items, while the Scrum master helps assign tasks, allocate resources, and manage team bandwidth. 

Product owner vs. product manager

The terms product owner and product manager are often used interchangeably. But while product owners are often a specific role within Scrum teams, product managers are usually a more general role that don’t necessarily fall within an Agile framework

However, sometimes teams have both a product owner and a product manager. In that case, the roles are usually differentiated as follows: 

  • Product managers are more high-level and strategic. They develop a vision for the product based on company objectives and market forces.

  • Product owners are more tactical. They translate the product manager’s strategy into actionable tasks and work with cross-functional partners to execute those requirements. 

But most commonly, product owners on Agile teams also fulfill the responsibilities of product managers. They consider the high-level strategy for products, plus complete tactical work like translating features into actionable tasks. 

Read: Strategy vs. tactics: What's the difference?

How does a product owner work with the Scrum team?  

A product owner works closely with the rest of the Scrum team. They help the team understand how backlog items fit into the overall product vision and serve as a liaison between the Scrum team and business stakeholders. That way, the team can focus on executing tasks rather than wrangling cross-functional partners. In addition, the product owner relies on the rest of the Scrum team for expert knowledge about the product they’re developing. For example, the Scrum team can explain how specific product features are created, what types of changes are feasible, and how different tasks may depend on each other.

To do this, the product owner meets with the Scrum team on a daily or weekly basis: 

  • Daily standups: Product owners often attend daily Scrum meetings to hear first-hand about progress and any potential problems. Since product owners act as a liaison between the product development team and business stakeholders, this helps them keep other teams in the loop on how things are going. 

  • Weekly backlog refinement meetings: The product owner typically meets with the Scrum team once a week to work on backlog refinement and help prepare backlog items for the next sprint. Development team members are true experts on how to execute product backlog tasks, so the product owner relies on their input in order to understand which product improvements or features the team can realistically deliver during each sprint. 

  • Sprint review meetings: Scrum product owners also run a sprint review meeting at the end of each sprint. During the sprint review meeting, the Scrum team showcases the work they accomplished, usually including product demos to help cross-functional stakeholders visualize and understand each deliverable.

Read: The importance of sprint planning in Agile methodologies

5 key product owner responsibilities

A product owner connects the Scrum team to stakeholders and advocates for the needs of end users, so everyone understands what a product is trying to achieve and why. Product owners often end up wearing many different hats, but their role is defined by these five key responsibilities.

1. Define product goals 

The product owner determines the goals of each product, so they can define specific product features to achieve those goals. 

To develop goals, the product owner has to understand what users want from the product and what their common pain points are. That means a big part of the product owner’s job involves working with stakeholders to conduct user research. For example, imagine you’ve been tasked with improving a calendar app. To determine what your specific goal should be, you could study how users interact with the existing app—then ask what they struggled with and what they wish the app could do better. 

In addition to defining goals based on user feedback, the product owner also needs to make sure all new features align with overarching business goals. For example, users may want to be able to share calendars with people outside their organization, but that may not align with your organization’s overall business goal to improve security and user privacy. As a product owner, it’s your responsibility to identify which user requests to prioritize.

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2. Determine product features and create backlog items

The product owner then translates those goals into specific product features and backlog items for the Scrum team to work on. That way, the rest of the Scrum team can zero in on the specific details of each backlog item, while the product owner helps ensure each backlog item addresses specific company goals and user needs. 

To continue with the calendar app example, this could mean defining a product feature that tracks the preferred working hours of different team members. Then, the product owner would work with the Scrum team to break that feature up into smaller actionable tasks for the product backlog—like a task to develop front-end design, one to create an interface for users to input their preferred hours, and so on. 

3. Create user stories

The product owner also creates user stories to help team members understand the context for each product feature. In Agile project management, a user story is a non-technical explanation of a product feature written from the user’s perspective. User stories define the end goals of a product feature—so the development team knows what they’re building, why they’re building it, and what value it creates.

User stories are often expressed as a single sentence, structured as follows: 

“As a [persona], I want to [software goal], so that [result].”

To continue with the calendar example, a product owner might create this user story to define the feature’s goals: 

“As the manager of a remote team, I want to understand when my team members are working so I can schedule meetings during times that are convenient for everyone.” 

4. Prioritize and manage the product backlog

Along with defining product features, the product owner is responsible for backlog refinement. This means they manage the product backlog and prioritize tasks based on business needs, product goals, and user requirements. Since the product owner has a high-level vision for the product and how it fits into overarching business objectives, they can help the Scrum team understand what to work on first. For example, the product owner may prioritize security-related tasks to align with an overarching business initiative focused on improving user privacy. 

In addition to prioritization, the product owner also makes sure stakeholders can see and understand the product backlog. That way, stakeholders can understand how the Scrum team translates their feedback into specific product features, why they prioritize certain tasks over others, and what a realistic timeline looks like for new feature requests.

5. Oversee product development stages

When teams develop a new product or feature, they often follow a predefined process to ensure the product is properly defined, tested, and implemented. This practice is called the product development process—a six-stage plan that takes a product from its initial concept to the final market launch. 

The product owner coordinates with key stakeholders to guide a product through each stage of the product development process:

  1. Idea generation: Brainstorm product concepts based on customer needs and market research. 

  2. Product definition: Scope the feature, define its value proposition, and identify success metrics. 

  3. Prototyping: Create a proof-of-concept version of the product to identify the feasibility of different features and create a development strategy. 

  4. Initial design: Create a first-draft version of the product that you can use to collect feedback from stakeholders and end users. 

  5. Validation and testing: Make sure every part of the product is working effectively before it’s released to the public. 

  6. Commercialization: Launch and implement the final product. 

Following this process ensures the Scrum team produces the best possible product with the least amount of risk. 

Why is a product owner important? 

A product owner is an essential part of any successful Scrum team. The team relies on the product owner to: 

Define the product vision

It takes a lot of planning to define new product features and create a product roadmap. Not only does the product owner make sure the product—or product improvements—provide the best possible experience for end users, but they also ensure that each new feature aligns with overarching business objectives. Defining a clear purpose for each backlog item helps the Scrum team spend their time on tasks that really matter. 

Prioritize input from stakeholders and end users

While stakeholders often think their projects are high-priority, the product owner has the context to decide what the Scrum team should work on first. Since the product owner has insight into business priorities, they understand why specific initiatives matter and how work ladders up into them. That means they can prioritize feedback from stakeholders and help the Scrum team focus on the most important work. Without a product owner, Scrum teams often end up prioritizing work based on directions from cross-functional teams. 

In addition, the product owner collects feedback from end users through user testing. This allows them to stay in touch with user needs, so they can also prioritize work to resolve common pain points as needed. 

Ensure the Scrum team follows guidelines for product development

The product owner also guides stakeholders and Scrum teams through the product development process. While different companies may use  variations of this process, it usually consists of six steps ranging from the initial product idea to actual implementation. Following this predefined process helps teams launch products with the least amount of risk. For example, teams should create a prototype to test the initial concept, complete front-end tests to identify any development errors or risks, and run user testing to ensure the finished product meets the expectations and requirements of end users. 

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The product owner doesn’t create this process from scratch (it’s typically defined by leadership within the product team), but it’s their responsibility to coordinate with stakeholders and ensure the team follows each step. 

Take ownership 

Product owners are an essential component of any Scrum team. They develop the high-level vision for a product and help the team execute that vision—so everyone understands the purpose of new product features and why they’re important. 

In order to be successful as a product owner, you need to collaborate with Scrum team members and stakeholders on a daily basis. Consider streamlining your work with a project management tool so you can plan your sprints, execute tasks, and communicate all in one place.

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