Agile Product Owner – New Name, Same Old Problem

This is a guest blog post by John Mansour, Founder and Managing Partner of ZIGZAG Marketing

In the world of agile software development, the confusion over product owner versus product manager is hardly new. This problem has existed as long as software and product managers have been around. It merely has a new name.

First, let’s cover the basics. There are two key roles in the software product delivery continuum that must precede the first line of code being written, regardless of development methodology.

  1. The “what & why” role – responsible for determining “what” functionality should go into a product and “why” from a market and business perspective. The “what and why” role serves as the conduit for all inputs both internal and external. The end game of this role is to grow revenue by aligning product direction with market dynamics and customer needs. The “what & why” function is typically the responsibility of the product manager. Traditional or agile, it’s necessary regardless of who does it, their title or how it gets done.
  2. The “how” role – responsible for determining “how” product features should work to support the things users do. In its most basic form, this role is a surrogate user responsible for explaining in verbal, written and illustrated forms and in excruciating detail, what users do, how they do it and how software must work “functionally” to support the users. They spend most of their time with developers and they test functionality to make sure it works as designed, along with a host of other responsibilities. And yes, the best people for this role are former users or those who have worked intimately with a variety of users in multiple environments.

The “how” function is typically the responsibility of a functional product designer (for lack of a better title). For the fraction of software companies that have them they go by such titles as Business Analyst, SME (subject matter expert) and Technical Product Manager. In an agile environment they’re called Product Owners. Call them what you want, every company with high user interaction products needs them. They get much of the credit for things like iPhones and TiVo where the cool factor is the usability.

In my humble opinion, the confusion lies in two areas. First, software companies have been trying to combine responsibilities of the product manager and functional product designer for years and it’s a nightmare in every single case I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. Plus it creates the same identity crisis as the product manager vs. the product owner in an agile world.

Regardless of development methodology, combining these roles is a recipe for failure because the skill sets and personality types required are distinctly different for each, not to mention the time commitment. When combined, the end result is either the right functionality with poor usability or highly usable features no one cares about. A dilemma on par with, “would you like to lose an arm or a leg today?”

The bottom line – your products will eventually fail. Second, “product owner” couldn’t possibly be a worse title, given the responsibilities of this role. Furthermore, product managers have always been affectionately referred to as product owners because they “own” the ultimate success of a product. Perhaps a dope-slap is in order for the person who coined the title “product owner.”

In summary, two distinct roles are necessary to feed requirements to software developers if you want usable products the market will buy, regardless of development methodology. The titles are less relevant as long as the responsibilities are clearly defined. For more on functional product designers read the article titled, Product Management & The Functional Designer – 3 Reasons it’s a “Must-Have” for Successful Products.

5 thoughts on “Agile Product Owner – New Name, Same Old Problem”

  1. interesting… you never mention user experience here. Where does the Information Architect fall in this vision of a product owner. Those are the people who designed the iPhone and the other gadgets heavy on UX.

  2. I agree with the sentiments of this post…

    At the end of the day, agile or waterfall or a combo development process should not matter to the Product Manager as they have to define the what and the why.

  3. Agree. Product Owner is not a title, it is an attitude. Strong product managers and strong engineers can both take the product owner attitude. Done in a constructive way they look beyond their defined job to ensure the product is successful.

  4. Stewart,
    There is certainly more than one way to approach this issue, much of it depending on the make up of the product portfolio and the delivery vehicle for the software (license, SaaS, etc.). I think the crux of the issue that needs to be addressed regardless, is the ratio of product owners to product managers. In my experience, the total headcount across the two roles is usually sufficient but not apportioned correctly to facilitate the connection of market objectives to product features and their functional design. There are either too many PM’s and not enough PO’s or vice versa. The few organizations that have the right balance have been far more successful.

  5. Not sure I agree, the product owner is not the how role. I think this is best said as a product manager is the “why and when” and the product owner is the “what”. Of course the luxury of this actually being two people is rare at best.

    I agree that companies need a “how” person, but it is not supposed to be the product owner.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: