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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Do we need a Lead Product Owner?

The title sounds a bit weird isn’t it? Scrum does not advocate on titles like lead and considers the entire team as a group of equals who will do anything it takes to successfully build and deliver a product. There are roles in a scrum team like scrum master, product owner etc. but there is no Lead as such. Then, why have I asked such a question?

Read on and you will know soon enough…

Is One Product Owner Enough for a Product/Scrum Project?

The Product Owner is one of the most challenging roles to be filled for any Scrum Project. Of all the roles, the PO (Short for Product Owner) is the one with majority of the prioritization and decision making authority. The PO is always reviewing competing requirements/requests from external parties (like clients) and internal stakeholders (The Scrum Team). He/she has to attend planning meetings, sprint reviews, retrospectives and even the daily scrum. On top of this, the PO also needs to manage the product backlog, answer queries raised by the team and more importantly manage external stakeholder expectations with regards to the product at hand. This includes, traveling to customer site, attending/conducting product roadshows, developing short/long term product strategy, prioritizing the product feature backlog, watching out for industry/market trends and the list goes on.

Quite a complex role isn’t it?

If the product is quite small and the team isn’t too big (single digit number) then most likely a single PO may be able to handle the project. Now, if we are talking about an enterprise product/system with a multitude of features, a single PO cannot possibly take ownership of the entire system and all its nuances. The product would most likely get split into different modules (small scrum teams) and unless each module has a dedicated product owner, the teams are going to be constantly complaining about lack of attention/intervention from their PO and this would result in unwanted delays.

At some point, as the overall size of the product/project grows, it makes sense to introduce a hierarchy of collaborating product owners. Each product owner is given responsibility for one part of the overall system and they are work together towards the overall product roadmap or goals. At any given time, we have more than one product owner, it also makes sense to introduce a Lead Product Owner who would take ownership of the product as a whole and not just the individual modules.

So, the Lead Product Owner is just the Manager for all Product Owners?

In crude terms, Yes. Every product owner is given the task of prioritizing their individual module level product/feature backlog. When there are competing or conflicting demands, we need someone to intervene and choose the outcome that is most suitable for the product. When there is a conflict, every PO is going to think only about what is most beneficial for his/her individual module and hence reaching a compromise may be a long and sometimes even a futile exercise. Having a Lead (or Manager) helps diffuse the tension because the Lead Product Owner owns the entire product and not just the subset and hence has the authority to decide.

The Lead Product Owner has the responsibility of having an overall vision for the entire product. He conveys this vision to his team of Product Owners and coach/guide them toward building a robust product. The Lead Product Owner should have regular meetings with his team of POs and provide constant support & feedback.

In fact, a complex product could have more than one layer of management/supervision among the PO’s. Look at the picture below – There are product owners, product line owners and a Lead product owner with increasing levels of ownership on the product.

Some Last Words

In large agile projects with multiple teams, the product owner role is just too big for one person and hence it is recommended to have a team of PO’s with one person taking the lead role. The term I have used like Lead Product Owner & Product Line Owner are just one of the many you can hear in the agile world. Some people even use terms like Super Product Owner, Feature Owner, Area Owner and so on. It’s up to you how you want to name this role but at the end of the day, the job description would pretty much be the same.

What is your experience in handling large scrum projects? Sound off in the comments section…

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