Our client as Product Owner in the Scrum team

By 11 December 2019Uncategorized

Our client as Product Owner in the Scrum team

In the first blog post of this series, I explored what makes Scrum an appropriate approach to facilitate innovation and partnering. In this second article, I will dive deeper into the role of the Product Owner, the way we apply this role at INFO and why it is vital for establishing and fostering partnerships.

What is the role of the Product Owner in Scrum?

For those not yet familiar with Scrum, I will briefly explain what the Product Owner (PO) role is all about. In Scrum, the PO is the single person who owns the product and is accountable for all decisions related to the product scope. She is the person who determines what the development team is going to develop and when. She talks to all relevant stakeholders to gather their input and consolidates all different product perspectives into one product vision. She also explains the decisions she or the team has made in terms of planning, priorities, and implementation to the stakeholders. She also mobilizes the right people outside of the team, should they be required for the project. As part of the Scrum team, she works side by side with the rest of the team to make sure everyone understands her vision for the product and has everything they need to realize it. Before each release, she confirms that the product meets expectations.

“The Product Owner is the person who owns the product and is accountable for all decisions related to the product scope. She is the person who determines what the development team is going to develop and when.” 

She works closely together with the Scrum team members, also known as the development team. As mentioned in the previous blog post, the development team is a group of professionals with all the competencies required to realize the product vision. Where the PO determines what the product should be, the development team determines how they will realize it. They have the freedom to choose any approach that makes the most sense to them, as long as they follow the Scrum process. They also continuously inspect and adapt their way of working in order to become a high-performant, self-organizing team.

Agile Product Ownership in a nutshell (accept our cookies to see the video)

It’s good to point out that this divide in accountability does not lead to the different roles “doing their own thing” in isolation from each other. On the contrary: the divide requires close collaboration as each party owns something that the other requires. It should lead to a dynamic of conversation and collaboration: The team proactively assists the PO in her tasks, challenging her ideas, and identifying the impact of the PO’s choices in order to make the product more valuable. And a good PO will be critical of the path that the team chooses, and might ask them to explore other scenarios to perhaps get more value in less time. The PO and the team really have to work together to achieve the best results.

“Where the Product Owner determines what the product should be, the development team determines how they will realize it.”

Please take over our kitchen!

With us, the PO is always a member of our client’s staff, which I think is awesome! In doing so, we are basically making our client the chef of our high-end IT kitchen. She gets access to all our top-of-the-line equipment, the best produce, our competent team, and their knowledge to cook whatever meal is most appealing to her stakeholders. She defines the menu, determines which course we are going to cook next, and stands at the pass to check each dish before it goes out to the diners.

Read the blog: My recipe for a well-done sprint.

Of course, this metaphor, like any other, will fall flat somewhere, but it hopefully serves the purpose of demonstrating why mobilizing the right PO from our client’s organization is an important topic when it comes to working this way. Although the potential benefits are high, there are obvious risks in letting a relative stranger be the chef of your precious kitchen. We give a lot of control over our best people to someone from another company which could lead to some complications. Although this can be challenging at times, we believe working with a client-provided PO is the most powerful way to establish partnering with our clients, as well as the best way to deliver great products.


What are the characteristics of a good Product Owner?

This is a question we get asked often when a new customer makes their preparations for the project. Of course, there are many different ways in which a PO can become successful and no two POs are the same. However, to answer this question we have come to value the following characteristics in a Product Owner most.

In our view, a successful Product Owner:

  • has a strong vision for the product – knows what the product aims to achieve, the opportunities it has and the threats it faces
  • knows the business and is known by the business – is familiar in and with the practice where the product will be used
  • has the explicit mandate to make decisions on behalf of the business – the entire organization respects his or her decisions
  • is decisive, even with incomplete information – the Product Owner makes decisions on behalf of the business on short notice
  • is in close contact with all relevant stakeholders – is a strong communicator, assertive, and knows how to foster relations
  • is available for the job – and engaged Product Owner is crucial for success

Another consideration for having the client provide the PO is making the potential skill gap more manageable. How to be the PO in a Scrum team is something you can learn relatively quickly, especially if INFO is equipped to teach you effectively and guide you along the way. However, gaining the respect of the people in the business to make decisions on their behalf that will often impact their way of working for years to come is not something that you can acquire as easily. Therefore, we advise our clients to provide a person that is already in a position to speak on behalf of others and has already established relations with the relevant stakeholders of the product.

Read blog: Four tips for stakeholder involvement in agile projects

How to make the Product Owner successful in the Scrum team?

1. Appropriate Contract Conditions:

First of all, the business agreement needs to be established in such a way that it makes this type of engagement possible. If we would work like this using a fixed-price-fixed-scope contract, for example, applying Scrum and having a client PO is just going to give a false impression of flexibility that our business agreement does not provide. Making sure the contractual side is set up in a way that enables a flexible scope and provides the PO and the team with enough freedom is a prerequisite for this approach.

2. Setting the right expectations:

Second, with the start of every new business relationship, we address the implications of putting forth a client representative in the role of PO. The role of the PO takes a considerable amount of time and effort from our client, but ultimately yields the best outcomes and the highest return on investment. Therefore, giving the right impression to a new client at the start of a project about what being the PO is all about, why it is beneficial for them to fill the role and what it will cost, is a vital step in making this approach work.

3. Support during the project:

Third, we make sure we provide POs with the right support when working with our teams. This obviously includes training about Scrum and the techniques that will help a PO to be successful. We also make sure our team’s Scrum Master is available to help out the PO throughout the project. In addition to those efforts, our development services include a track aimed to make the product vision clear. Before we start the development, we first guide the Product Owner and her stakeholders through a program based on design thinking principles to assist the Product Owner in materializing her Product Vision.

4. Empowering our Product Owner:

Finally, we train our own people on how to make our client POs more successful. If everyone knows how they can help to make their PO more successful, our client PO becomes a true member of the team, leaving it much more effective as a result. Also, IT projects just become a lot more motivating and fun to be a part of if everyone is on the same team!

INFO continuously works on improving both our own people and the client POs to truly be a business innovation partner for our clients, and it is making my job as Scrum Master a blast.

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