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Scrum Framework is one of the most implemented frameworks among most organizations. The Scrum Team consists of three accountabilities that run the entire process of product development. They are Scrum Master, the Product Owner, and the Developers. The Product Owner’s tasks are one of the most extensive roles in the Scrum Team. They are the face of the product and have a product vision and roadmap that the Developers need to follow to carry on with the product. Product Owners are also solely responsible for managing the Product Backlog.
The Product Owners also look after the business side of the product development as they communicate with the customers and anticipate their needs for the product. However, the various organizations have different roles assigned to the Product Owner. The authorities and responsibilities of a Product Owner vary across teams, departments, and organizations. The role of the Product Owner is a work that people have to grow into and adapt themselves to the job. It requires a certain mindset and specific competencies. Many organizations that have recently implemented Scrum may not have the concept of hiring a Product Owner. Nevertheless, a Product Owner’s decision is the final decision when any ambiguity is present with the features that have to be integrated into the product. In many organizations, this might not be the case, and the Product Owner may have other responsibilities as well. To establish clarity about the Product Owner levels in a company, there are five types of Product Owners which we look at in detail.
Five Types of Product Owners
- The Scribe
- The Proxy
- The Business Representative
- The Sponsor
- The Entrepreneur
There are various criteria based on which the Product Owners have been differentiated such as authority and responsibility. A Scribe has the least authority and responsibility whereas the entrepreneur has the most. As the PO gains more experience, they grow in its respective domain and add value to the product, customers, and organization. With the maturity of POs, the company experiences more benefits from implementing Scrum and the value of the product significantly increases. Let us understand what are the five Product Owner levels and how they vary from each other.
1. The Scribe
The Scribe Product Owner is the one who is starting with Scrum and has not fully embraced the Agile mindset. They do not apply Scrum properly as they have not completely understood how Scrum works. Organizations that employ such POs primarily give them the responsibility of managing the Product Backlog, collecting wishes from the stakeholders, and translating them into User Stories for the Developers. These POs have limited authority along with limited responsibilities. The main role of the scribe PO is to hear out the stakeholders, make a note of their wishes and communicate them in an understandable language to the Developers. In many organizations that have just started to implement the Scrum framework, the Business Analyst or the requirement engineers become the Product Owners. The total authority, in such a case, lies in the hands of the Project Management Office (PMO) or the steering committee.
2. The Proxy
Organizations that are in their starting phase with an Agile way of working employ the Proxy Product Owner, who has similar responsibilities as the Scribe Product Owner. However, the proxy Product Owner has more authority than the Scribe PO, for instance, the Proxy PO can make limited choices on the items on the Product Backlog, whereas the Scribe PO does not have any authority. The Business goals, the vision, and the desired results/outcome, and the scope of the product are determined by other members such as the project sponsor, business owner, or the steering committee. Many organizations hire team leads and the Product Managers as Proxy POs as these roles already have the responsibility of making the project successful. Hence, many companies refer to these roles as “Product Owners”. One fact to keep in mind is that the Proxy POs do not have the final say in making any decisions. They have to seek approval when changes take place or when they want any change to take place. Approvals have to be sought when the POs want to change the priorities of the items on the Product Backlog, and also while changing the roadmap, planning, and Product Backlog.
3. The Business Representative
As the name indicates, the business representative is a person who represents the business side of the organization. This type of Product Owner has to know the business context, customers, market, and users. This PO has enough experience to comprehend what exactly the user requires from the product and can indefinitely anticipate the needs of the customers. They are the ‘experts’ or ‘seniors’ in the company and invariably have many connections to the users and the customers. Generally, the process owners or system owners take up this type of role. It is not mandatory for people in this position to be from a business background; they could be from an IT background who understands the roles and possess the skills required for the position. For instance, information managers, architects, and security experts who have the maturity level of a business representative could serve as excellent Product Owners. A few examples of people who have an IT background but are magnificent Product Owners are Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
The Business representative has more authority than the proxy PO, as the Business representative is responsible for the part of the product, or process, or system. The Product Owner gets to decide which work would be carried out by the Development Team within this process or system. They also have the authority of managing the Product Backlog by themselves and are responsible for refining the backlog. However, the desired changes in the backlog could be done within a certain budget allocated by other people such as the management or the steering committee. They do not possess their budget and cannot spend as desired; they have to seek approval for any budget changes which is again, controlled by the manager or steering committee. The goals, projects, and list of tasks to be performed by the business representative are decided by someone else.
4. The Sponsor
The Sponsor has their budget which is in contrast to the business representative. This is the major difference between the business representative and the sponsor. However, the authorities and other responsibilities remain similar for both the Product Owners. Business managers, IT managers, and customers (in a business-to-business setting) are often chosen by the organization to fill in the position of the Sponsor Product Owner. With the budget responsibilities, the sponsors are open to more opportunities for upscaling or downscaling the Developers. Whenever there is a massive success for a product, the sponsor can add more members to the Development Team which would make the team deliver more value in less time. This flexibility of the sponsor affects the return on investment and total Product Ownership cost as their decisions can directly accelerate or delay the development process. The sponsor Product Owner also has more voice on what needs to be added to the product and how it should be done. The business goals, the projects to perform, and the work to be done is defined by the sponsor Product Owner.
5. The Entrepreneur
The Entrepreneur is also called the mini-CEO in practice and is the ultimate position of the Product Owner that every PO yearns to achieve. This type of PO has the most influence on the users, customers, and the organization. The entrepreneur PO takes full responsibility for the product and also has full authority over the product. They have a strong vision of the customers, market, and product. The entrepreneur should possess a strong sense of leadership, excellent communication skills, and a passion for the product. These POs are also responsible for the profit and loss of the product as they have full authority over the product. They are the face of the product and have a product vision before the product is developed. Other responsibilities of this PO are handling the operations, marketing, legal aspects, maintenance, and sales. Hence, this job requires the person to become a mini-CEO as this becomes their mini-company. This could be a minute company within a large enterprise.
Authorities and Responsibilities of Product Owners
Now that each of the Product Owner levels is clear, we have understood that there is a hierarchy of the responsibilities and authorities in the roles of Product Owners. Each PO has its key authority and focus; it all depends on what type of company they are working for and how much experience they have gained while working as a Product Owner. If a Product Owner is also included in the management function, then they could possess additional authority and responsibility. This helps the POs to grow faster but there is no prerequisite that a PO must have been a manager. The authority in every company is a matter of subjective domain as it depends on how the person acts. There is no provision that authority is given away, it always has to be earned in the company by taking up more leadership and ownership.
As a Product Owner, you can increase your responsibilities by taking up more ownership and responsibility for the success of your product, one step at a time. Certain examples of doing this are by creating the product vision and actively promoting the vision among the Developers, management, and stakeholders. Having active communication with the key stakeholders, and showing them how the team is adding value to the product. Creating clear transparency by displaying the costs of the project, and making value measurable are a few ways of gaining more authority as a Product Owner. When you take the initiative and become proactive in these topics, it shows how important the product is for the company. This makes the higher authorities build trust in you and allow you more responsibilities which will help you step up to the Product Owner level. The main aim if you have started as a Scribe or Proxy is to reach the level of Sponsor or Entrepreneur.
As the term Product Owner consists of the word “Owner”, which subtly means to own the product and take up the responsibility that comes along with it. Ownership is the exact trait that has to be displayed to the stakeholders which is more of an abstract sense such as attitude, mindset, and behaviors. Most people get stuck up on the Product Backlog, product vision, etc. However, the real Product Owner is the one who can get the abstract factors correctly. A successful Product Owner is one who reflects on their actions regularly and can look at themselves in the eye and question whether they have done anything that would help the product. Product Owners constantly have to question whether any setbacks are caused by others and what could have been done differently. In the end, being a Product Owner is all about taking up ownership of the product and finding ways to accelerate its growth of the product.
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