Articles What Is an Agile Product Owner and What Do They Do?

What Is an Agile Product Owner and What Do They Do?

Project Management
Vlad Kovalskiy
14 min
Updated: January 18, 2024
Vlad Kovalskiy
Updated: January 18, 2024
What Is an Agile Product Owner and What Do They Do?

The demand for the Agile methodology has been growing steadily. Between 2020 and 2021, its adoption rate among software businesses increased by 49%. A paramount role in this concept is the product owner, which is not synonymous with the product manager. In this article, we'll talk about who an Agile product owner is and why you should include them in your staff.

Who Is an Agile Product Owner?

Agile developers are responsible for building products. The product owner is in charge of boosting the value of these products. Owners need to interact with multiple departments and teams as cross-functional experts. They need to permanently stay in touch with:

  • Product manager

  • Scrum master

  • Development team

  • Marketing and sales teams

  • C suite

  • Customer support

  • Clients

The product owner can communicate with the engineers directly. Alternatively, the Scrum master can act as an intermediary between them.

The essence of this interaction boils down to:

  • Collecting feedback

  • Processing it

  • Prioritizing it for the engineers

Now, let's analyze the aspects of work that each party involved in the communication process is focused on:

  • Agile teams are focused on the product's delivery

  • Product owners are focused on the team, solution and technology

  • Product managers are focused on the market and customers

When a customer reaches out to the company, they talk to the product manager. The manager communicates to the product owner and the latter to the engineering department. The product owner can be characterized as the customer proxy.

Is It a Full-Time Job?

Some business owners might think they could perform well without a product owner. Indeed, if a startup lacks a budget at the initial stage, it can begin to operate without this professional. But as soon as the company takes off, it would be wise to hire a product owner. Yes, this person needs to get a salary. But they will improve both the quality of the product and the speed of its delivery, so the investment of hiring them should pay off very quickly. Two-thirds of companies that switched to Agile admit that this methodology enabled them to boost their efficiency by achieving the following goals:

  • Better managing priorities

  • Boosting visibility

  • Coordinating the interaction between the business and software teams

Product owners who are just making their first steps in this job might think that they have a supportive role in the product development process. In fact, their role is central. They should be ready for multitasking and assuming various roles. While meeting the user's needs, they should comply with the Definition of Done (it's a set of acceptance criteria that a product should meet to be classified as finished and ready to be used).

An experienced product owner can try to juggle several products simultaneously. But they shouldn't try to work for several teams at the same time. Instead, they should stick to one team only. The maximum number of teams that a skilled product owner can supervise is two. And of course, it's a full-time job. Top managers shouldn't ask engineers to double as product owners because the latter will hardly be able to cope with such a workload.

The Full Scope of a Product Owner's Duties

Let's try to sum up and systematize all the tasks and duties that the product owner should be ready to take up.

Overseeing development stages:

  • Working with the team to refine and improve the development process

  • Contributing to the planning, execution and review of each sprint

Anticipating consumer needs:

  • Creating customer journey maps

  • Having a deeper knowledge of the market

  • Understanding and anticipating client needs to manage the development process

Acting as a main liaison:

  • Delivering comprehensive instructions to developers

  • Gaining buy-in from stakeholders

Assessing product progress:

  • Determining whether the final project is acceptable

  • Investigating and assessing product progress through each iteration

  • Being accountable for all phases of the development process

Defining the vision:

  • Keeping the product in line with business goals

  • Creating the roadmap for the product

  • Communicating to stakeholders to understand business objectives

Prioritizing needs:

  • Juggling scope, budget and time to prioritize projects

  • Considering the needs and objectives of stakeholders

Managing the product backlog:

  • Mapping out dependencies

  • Creating a list of backlog items

  • Prioritizing items based on the overall strategy

Now, let's scrutinize the three main spheres of responsibility of the product owner.

The Primary Responsibilities of an Agile Product Owner

As you master these three responsibilities, it should become easier for you to cope with the rest of your work.

Product Goals

The Agile approach is characterized by:

  • Great flexibility

  • Fast speed of work

For these reasons, the goals and priorities of the product might change frequently. This might lead to the following problems:

  • The team doesn't know that the goals have changed and keeps on working along with the old guidelines

  • Some part of the team gets to know about the new goals but doesn't inform the other part because people believe their colleagues already know everything

  • The team misinterprets the new goals and follows its own vision while working on the product — but neither users nor stakeholders will be satisfied

The product owner should be the first person who finds out about the new goals. However, they don't set these goals because it's the product manager's duty. The owner needs to grasp the vision of the product and promptly communicate it to the team. This professional needs to speak the same language as the development team to build trust and avoid misunderstanding.

Even if the goals don't change, the engineers might veer off from the main objective simply because of Agile's flexibility. The product owner needs to stay in constant touch with the developers to make sure they don't get excessively creative.

If the owner lacks clarity on the general strategy and goals for the product, it might lead to the following consequences:

  • It might be challenging for the owner to prioritize and communicate tasks

  • The team will fail to meet the deadline

  • The product will be late or its quality will be compromised

If the team lacks a product owner, it might be challenging to detect the person who is responsible for the failure. If there is an owner, the communication becomes better organized and supervisors can easily identify when exactly this professional made a mistake.

Product Backlog

A product backlog is an ranked inventory of tasks that the staff needs to complete to meet a specific objective. Each task in the backlog is a standalone iteration.

The owner creates the product backlog and keeps editing it all throughout its lifecycle. They might own the entire product backlog or manage the backlog of only a selected product feature. This is what they can do with the backlog:

  • Decide that some tasks are excessive or not too important and delete or postpone them

  • Merge several tasks into one

  • Split one task into several ones

  • Prioritize tasks depending on their urgency, priority or logistics

  • Attach descriptions or details to tasks

The process of refining the product backlog is called backlog grooming.

To provide the content authority of their backlog to other staffers, the product owner resorts to the following formats of content:

  • Personas

  • Empathy maps

  • Customer journey maps

  • Story maps

The biggest mistake that the product owner can make when working with the backlog is creating a mess. All the team should understand the logic of this professional. They shouldn't get confused about the new order of the tasks or their merges. The owner should communicate the new requirements to the team very clearly.

Within the Agile methodology, the development of a product is split into multiple sprints. A sprint is an iteration of the development cycle that has a fixed duration and is repeated over and over again. The owner knows in advance when the product will be ready because the process of creating it is highly predictable. This predictability facilitates backlog grooming.

Transparency, Forecasting and Prioritizing

The term "transparency" means that all the stakeholders should be able to track the progress of work. Even if a person doesn't take part in the product development, they should be able to assess at which phase the process is and whether everything is going on as intended.

To ensure transparency, the product owner can resort to the following techniques:

  • Communicate and collaborate with the engineer, the Scrum Master and all the stakeholders

  • Support feedback culture

  • Share progress with all the stakeholders at each development phase

  • Work side-by-side with the engineers and other stakeholders

To evaluate the transparency of the development process, product owners rely on this set of questions:

  • Are all staffers aware of why they're contributing to this project?

  • Do all staffers have an explicit and shared understanding of the term "quality"?

  • Is the output of all staffers often and systematically inspected?

  • Are the processes that the staff uses often and systematically inspected?

  • Is the work of the team visible to all its members and the whole company?

  • Do professionals have a right to to raise issues and red flags?

  • Do all staffers share an understanding of when the work is finalized?

If the answer to a question is Yes, it counts as 1. The negative answer equals zero. To interpret the results, you should use this scale:

  • 2 points or less — the team lacks transparency

  • 3-6 points — the work and process can be characterized as visible to a certain extent but there is great room for improvement

  • 7 points or more — a high level of transparency

You might ask, why can't a product owner prioritize tasks from the onset when the process of working on the product is just getting started? At the initial stage, they indeed can outline the general projection of the product development. But when the engineers begin to work, too many internal and external factors will start influencing it. The product owner will have to make inevitable adjustments and amendments. They will need to react very quickly, without compromising the quality of the product. Plus, they will need to keep the stakeholders informed.

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How the Product Owner Deals with Iteration and Program Execution

Here are the primary duties of the product owner in terms of the iteration execution:

  • Maintaining the team backlog. It's not synonymous with the product backlog. The engineers, the system architect and other stakeholders can all contribute to the process — but it's the product owner who's in charge of creating, improving and maintaining the team backlog. This backlog features user stories, enablers and defects. The owner can prioritize backlog items by time, user value or other parameters. They shouldn't determine these parameters themselves — instead, they should discuss them at a product iteration planning event and then refine them during the iteration.

  • Iteration planning. When preparing for iteration planning, the product owner should review and reprioritize the backlog. At this stage, they need to coordinate dependencies with other product owners. When planning the iteration, this professional communicates story detail and priorities. They need to encourage all the team to align and agree on a final iteration plan.

  • Just-in-time story elaboration. To allow the team to implement backlog items, the product owner elaborates these items into user stories. They can do it either during the iteration, or when planning the iteration, or even earlier. This professional maintains proper flow and processes all the stories and acceptance criteria that other staffers might be willing to submit to them.

  • Applying behavior-driven development. Together with their teams, product owners detail stories with acceptance criteria and examples in the form of acceptance tests.

  • Accepting stories. Together with other staffers, the product owner agrees on accepted story completion. This means they ensure the story meets acceptance criteria, has the appropriate and persistent acceptance tests and otherwise complies with its Definition of Done. Besides, the product owner checks whether the product is fit for use and based on the accepted story and assesses its quality.

  • Understanding enabler work. Product owners don't need to make technological decisions but they help others to make them. His professional should collaborate with engineers, system and solution architects to better understand the scope and specifics of the upcoming enabler work.

  • Participating in team demo and retrospective. In the team demo, product owners collaborate with their teams and other stakeholders. Plus, they take part in the iteration retrospective that lets teams improve their processes.

The working process of Agile teams consists of iterations because this approach enables them to reach an important goal: to release value-added solutions frequently, reliably and continuously. In terms of each iteration, the product owner who works for a specific team needs to communicate with their colleagues who work with other teams. They should synchronize their activities and exchange information regularly.

The Difference Between the Product Owner and Two Other Similar Occupations

Now, let's speak about how the duties of the product owner in Agile differ from those of the product manager and the Scrum product owner.

Product Manager vs Product Owner

While the product owner drives the iteration, the product manager drives both the product iteration and the product. The former defines iterations and stories while the latter defines features, product iterations and releases. The product owner contributes to the vision, the roadmap and ROI — while the product manager owns the vision, the roadmap, licensing, pricing and ROI. The former accepts iteration increments while the latter collaborates on enablers.

As for the Agile team, it owns estimates and evolves the continuous delivery pipeline. It builds quality-in and evolves Agile architecture. The project manager makes sure the team works on the right project — while the Agile team itself ensures they're doing it the right way.

Scrum Product Owner vs Agile Product Owner

Founders and HR specialists often get confused between the terms "product owner in Agile" and "Scrum product owner". To understand the difference between them, we should explain the essence of the Scrum concept. It's a part of the Agile framework. It's a lightweight framework whose purpose is to create product value. The Scrum framework consists of four steps:

  1. Product owner orders product backlog
  2. The Scrum team accomplishes a sprint — that is, performs one task at a time within a small time period
  3. The stakeholders analyze the result hand in hand with the Scrum team and fine-tune it if needed
  4. The cycle repeats

The Scrum owner strives to maximize the value of the product that their team creates. In this aspect, their work is very similar to that of the product owner in Agile but they need to adjust their workflows to the Scrum methodology which is different from Agile.

Which Software Should a Product Owner Use in Their Everyday Work

In their everyday work, product owners can rely on dedicated product management software. Dozens of efficient and user-friendly solutions are available on the market — but in this article, we'd like to focus on Bitrix24. It's a large and versatile system whose functionality goes far beyond product management only. It facilitates project management, time management and email marketing, has a CRM and a built-in contact center, allows its users to build and host websites without having any coding skills and complete many other business-related tasks.

Bitrix24 allows you to do the following:

  • Create an unlimited number of tasks

  • Create dependencies between these tasks

  • Create repetitive tasks

  • Create task templates

  • Add subtasks to each task

  • Distribute the tasks between your team members

You'll be able to check the current workflow of each staff member to make sure they have enough time and resources to accept the task.

Bitrix24 nicely visualizes the information related to your workflows. At a glance, you can determine which tasks are running on time and which ones are lagging behind the schedule. When the system detects a potential bottleneck, it will warn you in advance so that you can take measures to prevent a delay. If needed, you can resort to Gantt charts. The system offers similar functionality for managing projects.

Bitrix24 can generate insightful reports that should help you measure the efficiency of your team. You can set KPIs for your staffers and track the progress of achieving them. The system will provide you with detailed statistics on your staff's productivity and help detect the points and aspects that could be improved.

When you need to discuss your workflows with the team, you can exchange text messages in the Bitrix24 chat, or make audio calls, or host video conferences. This software allows you to exchange documents and keep all the history of your communication in one place. You can use the same dashboard to communicate to stakeholders, freelancers, contractors, investors, contributors and other individuals outside your company.

In the Bitrix24 calendar, you can create an unlimited number of events and invite people to them. You can make your calendars public (accessible to everyone) or private (only users to whom you send an invitation can open them).

Companies can try the basic functionality of Bitrix24 at no cost for an unlimited period of time. To get access to a more powerful version of the product, they should upgrade to a paid plan. The cheapest paid plan costs $39 per month and accommodates 5 users. The priciest plan accommodates an unlimited number of users and costs $159 per month.

Your staff can either access Bitrix24 through a cloud or install it as an on-premise solution. The mobile app of this product is compatible with iOS and Android devices.

Even though Bitrix24 is a complex system, it should take your staff just a few days to get used to it. It has an excellent help center and comprehensive tutorials.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article came in handy and now you better understand who an Agile product owner is. This specialist manages and grooms the product backlog, striving to boost the product's value. They communicate the value of the product to the engineering team and ensure maximum transparency of workflows. This position is crucial for the success of an Agile team. To make the most of their efforts, product owners should rely on product management software, such as Bitrix24.

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Table of Content
Who Is an Agile Product Owner? Is It a Full-Time Job? The Full Scope of a Product Owner's Duties The Primary Responsibilities of an Agile Product Owner Product Goals Product Backlog Transparency, Forecasting and Prioritizing How the Product Owner Deals with Iteration and Program Execution The Difference Between the Product Owner and Two Other Similar Occupations Product Manager vs Product Owner Scrum Product Owner vs Agile Product Owner Which Software Should a Product Owner Use in Their Everyday Work Final Thoughts
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