Product Owners (POs) play a critical role in agile software development. They act as the voice of the customer and are responsible for defining and prioritizing product features. However, some organizations have started to move away from having dedicated POs. There are several potential reasons why an organization may decide to cancel the PO role.
The PO Role is Redundant
In some cases, the responsibilities of the PO may be redundant in an organization. For example, in a small startup where the founders are intimately involved in product decisions, they may view having a separate PO as unnecessary. The founders are already acting as the voice of the customer. Assigning a PO would add overhead without providing additional value.
Additionally, if an organization has strong product management, having dedicated POs may be seen as duplicative. Product managers define strategy and high-level priorities. If the product manager is deeply embedded with the engineering teams, they may be able to fill the PO responsibilities like writing user stories and managing the backlog.
Difficulty Integrating the PO
Integrating the PO role into the agile development process can be challenging. The PO needs to collaborate closely with both business stakeholders and the development team. However, many organizations struggle with the PO operating too independently from other roles.
For example, the PO may create requirements and prioritize the backlog without sufficient input from engineers, designers, or other roles. This can result in frustration from the team and products that miss the mark. If the PO isn’t integrated well, the role may be seen as ineffective and cancelled.
Lack of Buy-In for the Role
For the PO role to be successful, both business and technology leaders need to understand its value and support it being in place. Without buy-in, the PO will lack the authority and mandate needed to represent the customer perspective.
Some executives accustomed to traditional waterfall development may be resistant to an agile PO. They may see it as another layer of redundancy between themselves and the development team. If senior leaders don’t back the role, it’s unlikely the PO will be empowered to deliver value.
Challenges Finding the Right PO
Hiring the right person for the PO role can be difficult. The PO needs a mix of soft skills along with technical product knowledge. They must communicate effectively, understand customer needs, and be able to work cross-functionally.
Organizations may go through multiple unsuccessful PO hires before determining the role itself is problematic. Rather than trying to fill the position again, they cancel it altogether. However, discarding the PO function based on a few poor hires may be short-sighted.
Transitioning from Waterfall
Organizations moving from waterfall to agile often struggle to adapt existing job functions. People hired into traditional business analyst or project manager roles may be unwilling or unable to transition into a PO position.
Rather than dealing with trying to change the responsibilities of current employees, it can seem easier to eliminate the PO role. However, this loses out on the benefits that a strong PO can provide in connecting the business and technical perspectives.
When the PO Role Works Well
Despite some challenges, many organizations find great success with the PO role. When implemented effectively, a PO provides tremendous value through:
- Understanding and communicating customer needs
- Grooming the product backlog
- Prioritizing features and stories
- Facilitating collaboration between teams
Here are some best practices to integrate the role successfully:
Ensure senior leaders endorse the PO function before trying to implement it. Explain how it fits into the agile framework and provides value.
Hire for Core Competencies
Look for candidates with strong analytical, communication, collaboration and product management skills. Technical expertise in the product domain is also preferred.
Clearly Define the Role
Document the PO responsibilities and how they interact with other functions like product management and project management.
Provide Adequate Training
If hiring someone new to agile, give them training on core practices like user stories, backlog management and working with teams.
Integrate the PO
Have the PO participate in sprint planning, retrospectives, reviews and daily standups. Include them in team rituals and collaboration.
Should You Keep or Cancel the PO Role?
Deciding whether to maintain or cancel the PO function depends on an organization’s specific situation. Here are some questions to consider:
|Keep the PO Role
|Cancel the PO Role
|– Is there a clear need for a customer representative?
|– Are PO responsibilities already covered by other roles?
|– Will the PO be properly empowered and integrated?
|– Is the PO producing additional overhead vs value?
|– Can strong PO candidates be hired?
|– Has the role been given adequate time to deliver results?
|– Does the PO enhance collaboration between teams?
|– Are executives bought into the PO function?
Answering these questions can help determine if the PO role makes sense for your organizational context. The key is ensuring the PO is integrated well and provides value not already being delivered through other means.
The Product Owner role is a staple of agile software development. But it also commonly runs into challenges around integration, redundancy and lack of buy-in. Eliminating the PO can seem like an easy solution when difficulties emerge.
However, discarding the function entirely gives up on the benefits of a customer advocate involved throughout the development process. With careful implementation that garners executive support, hires appropriate candidates, and integrates the role properly, the PO can deliver tremendous value.
Assessing the specific organizational context and need for the responsibilities the PO fulfills is crucial. In many cases, the role merits being preserved and refined rather than cancelled outright. With wisdom and patience, organizations can learn how to make the PO function thrive.