Transitioning to Scrum: Selecting the Product Owner

  1. Posted on August 13, 2009 12:23:PM by John Clifford to Retrospectives
  2. Methods & Processes, Technique, project management, Agile, Scrum, requirements, Management, product owner

Many teams moving to Scrum have questions about the Product Owner position. Is the Product Owner a member of the Scrum team? What role does the Product Owner play in the day-to-day life of a Scrum project? How do we map current functional roles to Scrum roles, specifically with regard to the Product Owner? Who should we select as our Product Owner?

Let me start by saying the Product Owner is perhaps the most important role in Scrum… something you don’t often hear from Scrum folks. The Scrum process defines the Product Owner as being the person responsible for the team’s return on investment, i.e., the Product Owner will be judged by whether the project’s outcome justifies its cost. Another, more direct way of saying this is to identify the Product Owner as “The Single Wring-able Neck,” or the person whose head is on the figurative chopping block if the project fails. Interestingly, the Project Management Institute has a similar definition for project managers: the person assigned by the performing organization to achieve the project objectives (PMBOK Guide, 4th Edition, p13). Therefore, based upon both the Scrum and PMI definition, the Product Owner responsibilities are equivalent to those of a project manager. This is one reason why I have found knowledge and competence in project management to be a key ability of a successful Product Owner. Selecting a Product Owner therefore naturally starts with identifying candidates who have that knowledge.

There are other skills and abilities required, including sufficient technical knowledge to understand the problem domain and the technical aspects of proposed solutions. A successful Product Owner doesn’t need to be the best software developer on the team, but he does need to be able to understand the technical decisions well enough to know whether they make sense.  Eliminate candidates who lack sufficient technical ability.

Be especially careful not to view the Product Owner as the project's ‘driver.’ Scrum is about empowered, self-managing teams which are led (pulled) rather than driven (pushed). Scrum means never having to be driven. Candidates who can’t or won’t embrace the servant-manager philosophy, or who insist on directing the team should be disqualified. Nothing will cripple your Scrum implementation more than a de jure Product Owner who sees himself as a de facto team manager.

By now, you should have narrowed the candidate list to those who have demonstrable technical, project management, and interpersonal skills. Who among the remaining candidates has the ability to understand the customer, the market, and the business? Are there candidates with entrepreneurial experience? Owning a business, starting a business, or working in a leadership position at a startup where everyone wears a multitude of hats and understands making money is the true test of whether or not the customer is satisfied is invaluable. People with this experience understand what really matters because they’ve lived it. People who have had experience in customer support, QA/test, or sales and marketing at larger companies may also have an understanding of the customer.

Now you should be down to the final few candidates. I like the Toyota Production System concept of a ‘Chief Engineer’ with extensive technical, project management, and business knowledge who leads the team to successful project completion. We’re talking about candidates with a software development background, successful project management experience, who have dealt effectively with the customer and understand business realities, and with the skills and experience to successfully act as a proxy for the customer and other stakeholders. Which of the remaining candidates most closely matches this description? If there is no one, have any of the candidates shown promise that they can develop to this level? If the answer is still “No,” then you may want to hire someone with the necessary talents and skills to fill the position.

Michael James said:

August 13, 2009 5:58:PM

I agree the PM is often a better fit for Product Owner than for ScrumMaster.  If this is the person the organization is holding responsible for maximizing the ROI of the development effort, you've just identified your Product Owner.  

Next, you need to find a ScrumMaster, as these roles were separated for a reason....

Great post.


Kevin Brennan said:

August 13, 2009 8:27:PM

Project management doesn't map on to the Product Owner role, though. Project management is about directing how work is performed on a team, not defining requirements and assessing their business value. The Product Owner isn't supposed to actually DO any of the things a project manager does according to the PMBOK--in fact, things like the business case and product requirements are inputs INTO project management, not something PMs are supposed to produce. The PM really does map much better to the Scrummaster.

lalpridevi said:

August 17, 2009 4:24:AM

This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone.

John Clifford said:

August 17, 2009 11:20:PM

@Kevin Brennan: I agree that the duties of a Product Owner are not those of a project manager, but the responsibilities are the same. The duties of a Scrum Master are not those of a project manager, either... and they don't share the same responsibilities. I have found that a person who has project management skills but lacks the other essential skills I listed will not make a good Product Owner or a Scrum Master.

I have an article in progress on selecting a Scrum Master, but I can summarize it by saying I have found that good development managers, technical program managers with significant development experience, or test leads or managers with significant development experience are among the list of candidates I look at closely for the Scrum Master short list. I'll explain why I would choose from among these folks in my article.

Ash said:

October 14, 2011 11:20:PM

Where can I find this article  you mentioned you are writing on selecting a Scrum Master.

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John Clifford

John Clifford is a Senior Fellow and Agile Practices Lead at Construx Software where he focuses on software development, project management, portfolio management, product management, and organizational management practices. John has three decades experience across the software development and organizational management spectrum, working for small startups and the world's largest software company. He has been an individual contributor, development manager, group project manager, development director, and CEO.

John has worked on software for everything from microcomputers to mainframes, in domains as disparate as mobile telephony platforms, desktop applications, asynchronous device drives, and computer-to-computer telecommunications. He has developed software in assembler, C, C++, .NET, and Java on platforms that include CP/M, Unix, VAX VMS, MVS/TSO, MacOS, Windows, OS/2, Windows CE, and Linux. He understands project management as a successful practitioner, and as one of the original software developers on Microsoft Project for Windows. His product management skills include the design and creation of industry-recognized software, and he has helped clients focus on the essentials to deliver more quickly with higher revenue.

John has led numerous successful Scrum and Lean-Kanban adoptions, and his clients include several Fortune 500 companies with locations across the US, Europe, and Asia. He holds Certified Scrum Master, Certified Scrum Product Owner, and Certified Scrum Professional certifications for the Scrum Alliance. He is a charter Kanban Coaching Professional, at the invitation of the Lean-Kanban University. He presents at Lean, Agile, and Scrum conferences, and has been recognized for his knowledge and ability in the application of Agile and Lean principles to all facets of software project planning, management and execution.


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