The Importance of the Product Owner Role

The Product Owner role is often neglected or reduced to an add-on for Product Management, but it's an increasingly important part of business transformation

A recent gig has me investigating the topic of Business Transformation, or as is also referred to as the Digital Transformation of the Business. If you do even a cursory Google search on it, you will discover reams of information about it.

In a nutshell, it is how the pervasive confluence of cloud computing, big data and analytics, the rise of software, and rapid development are all coming together to greatly disrupt the organization. Pick up any of the big analysts reports, Forrester, Gartner, and even some publications by the largest consultancies (EY, McKinsey, and others) and it is impossible to miss out on this trend.

It means different things to different industries, but at its foundation is that IT spending is no longer the sole domain of the CIO, and the IT organization, but increasingly other groups are beginning to hold sway over the budget and spending. Perhaps it is operations who is desperate to deploy an IoT strategy with analytics to streamline the production line, or marketing who needs to tap into analytics and marketing automation to both better target their promotional efforts, and to nurture the opportunities.

Regardless of the driver, this has lead to changes in the organizations that are grabbing the bull by the horns to disrupt from within.

One report I read recently was on the rise of roles within an organization that heretofore were associated with Agile Software Development. Scrum Master, Product Owner among others stood out to me.

In my prior life in software product management, I was an integral part of the development effort, as a product manager. One of my many hats was the "Product Owner" role, and one that is a common overload placed on the Product Manager.

I will admit that I scoffed at the thought of the Product Owner being a full time role, or if it was, it was for a junior team member, who had the cycles to spare for this task.

And if I look around the Product Management blogosphere, I can find some consensus around that opinion. Truth be told, most product managers put on the Product Owner role at the scrum turn around, and just dealt with it. And there are many good arguments for the Product Owner to be the Product Manager, as a single source for decisions, and view on the business.

But here was a report, in my hot little hands, where the case was made that the Product Owner was a critical role in the Digital Transformation of the organization. In this person's hands were the keys to driving the change. They owned the backlog, influenced the direction, and nearly daily made decisions that would reverberate throughout the organization. This reading of the role decisively placed it above product management in the hierarchy.

This rocked me back on my heels. As I said above, in my world, and many others agree, the product owner has always been an add-on to the product management role, and as such, it was a fraction of their attention. The assumption that the Product Manager had all these concepts and decision trees in their head, and would just trot them out at the end/beginning of the iteration seemed so appropriate.

However, this report made the case that the Product Owner belonged higher in the hierarchy than the product manager, and went on to clearly make the case. This is a role that combines both business acumen, understanding of the current state and the end state, has the trust of the team (both the development team and the management team), and the authority to act decisively to keep the project or program on course.

Have I been blind to the true value and importance of the Product Owner role?

I concede that I have. And another shock from the report was how valuable and difficult it is to staff the "Scrum Master". This role has traditionally been viewed as a facilitator in my projects, someone who is great at the day-to-day tactical activities, reporting, and moving the project along, but in reality, for large programs that truly drive transformation, you need sort of an über Scrum Master, not merely a tactician, but an evangelist, one who can both shepherd the program, and drive adoption across the organization.

In the last three months, as part of this assignment, my product management world has been rocked. I expect this trend to continue.

It is a good thing.

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