Product Owner conversion from other roles

After the Scrum Master role, we look at the Product Owner.

First of all, let’s clarify what is exactly the role of a Product Owner (PO) and how is different / similar to the one of a Product Manager (PdM).
Generally in Agile the PO is intended as the customer proxy for the team: express the work to be done to achieve a goal, order and organise it into a Product Backlog and ensure that is visible and understood by everyone in the team.

This is the definition reported by the Scrum guide:

The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog.

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

Note the emphasis in the last sentence about how this can greatly vary.

Not only every team, every individual, every product, every organisation are different but this definition is based on a single team, where the PO is responsible for the scope (backlog) of that team work; when you scale up and you add more teams, the PO will soon become overloaded and you will need to add more POs, even adding a “hierarchy” of roles (well, more a collaborative network).
See for example the Less framework where you have a Product Owner who ensures a cohesive vision and several Area-POs to manage each individual area in the product.

This complexity exists also in organisations using the classic PM roles: you can have one or more Product Managers (product), one or more Marketing PdMs (market/business) , one or more Business Analysts (BA, functional details) and they are fluid: the three can be one, two or three roles, dependent on the size or complexity of the challenge.


Keeping that in mind, let’s see what are the skills and responsibilities of a Product Owner (in broad terms) compared to a Product Manager.

The responsibilities, what a PO does

In a classic non-Agile approach, the Product Manager  is responsible for discovery and definition of the scope while the Project Manager (PjM) is responsible for execution and delivery of the scope.

In an Agile approach – with no Project Managers around – the PO is responsible for the execution and delivery too: they need to plan the releases according to the team velocity, the sprint length and the priorities in the backlog.

In the startup world (but not only, look at how many hi-tech CEOs started as PdM) product managers are treated like rock stars because they make a difference between the success or the failure of a team or a product.
Even more for agile companies: the PO role is essential to the success of a product simply because people need somebody to organise the effort and keep a handle on the environment, marketplace, competitors and customer segments (backlog management).
A PO shall to be able to prioritise the most valuable MVP (the Minimum Viable Product) outcome for their users, customers and business (backlog prioritisation and grooming).
They do this by collaborating with the help and input of the team (epic and story definition and clarification, sprint planning).
Then by analysing bulk qualitative and quantitative data they determine if behaviour and metrics are moving in the right direction (Product vision and roadmap,  ongoing optimisation of product, …)

The skills

Success of the product begins with having a very clear vision.
The PO is the coordinator, or the glue, that pulls the team together to get them to buy into the underlying tradeoffs. The crux of coordination and resolving conflict across areas lies in developing a shared understanding of the business model.
Business models and their implementation for the PO’s decisions are not easy to discern. Part of the challenge is to collect the relevant pieces of information from different sources. Moreover, in the digital economy, these models and underlying technologies change rapidly.
Strong grounding in the basic principles of business is necessary to deal with such changes and ambiguity.

The PO is the person responsible for defining the ‘why’, ‘what,’ and ‘when’ of the product that the team will build and will typically possess these skills:

  • needs to explain WHY we build a product.
    • Customer Advocacy
      POs are the voice of the customer within the organisation. This skill relies on using real customer data and feedback to conquer the “we know what’s best for our customers” mindset.
    • Business Basics
      Product management is a general management job and as such it requires a minimum level of expertise in finance, marketing, operations management and strategy; making decisions based on what is company-critical, not just acting in the best interest of your particular product’s short-term success.
      It is a PO’s most basic responsibility (and primary goal) to maximise a company’s value by way of marketable and profitable products (remember the above definition); this might include also skills such as contracts & legal, selling and competitive intelligence.
    • Analytical Skills
      Data driven decisions are fundamental and require skills such as data collection, extraction and analysis, experimentation (A/B testing), statistics, interactive prototyping.
  • needs to explain WHAT we build
    • Domain Knowledge & Subject Matter Expert
      The Product Owner needs to be a domain / industry expert to deliver a successful product, almost solely by managing the scope.
    • Communication
      Written, verbal and nonverbal language are all communication skills the PO must master to gain credibility as an effective and trustworthy leader. He or she should know how to communicate the objective – clear, concise  and direct – and justify the team’s decisions with data or empirical evidence so that others can better understand and trust the insight.
      Effective communication means also learning from others, even hearing dissenting opinions.
  • need to plan, declare WHEN we build.
    • Planning and Project Management
      This is an important responsibility, that is not for a classic PdM because there you have the Project Managers. But in Agile it’s the PO in charge of defining the release management , the priorities and plan together with the team (that estimates).
    • Interpersonal skills (Negotiation & Persuasion & Evangelism)
      The PO is seldom in charge of the people who make the product.
      That means he or she must effectively convince them to do the things needed to be done, by negotiating work, evangelising the goals, helping removing the impediments and persuading the other stakeholders or teams.

rolesPOFinal words

Product Managers are the obvious choice when translating existing roles to Agile but – as said – there are different types of PdM: technical, generalist, business-oriented, business analysts, …

BA skills are extremely helpful to a PO, but a PO needs more clout in the organisation than a BA typically has. This need for influence is why business-facing Project Managers can sometimes make good POs. Again, far from automatic. PjMs want to get rid of problems whereas POs have to think about the product, quality, reputation i.e. what an entrepreneur should take care of (this is why Product Managers and POs are often considered the CEO of their product).

I hope that this short excursion into classic and Agile roles gave you some ideas more than just the lazy Product manager -> Product Owner and Project manager -> Scrum Master.

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