In my experience delivering high velocity, critical business projects, I have worked in environments that have traditional software development approaches as well as environments using agile development approaches. While Scrum has a Product Owner role, every organization is unique and hence their adaptation of roles when they are in an agile environment differs in how the business and IT interpret these roles. Lack of clarity of these roles often results in team members and stakeholders becoming frustrated as they constantly step on each other toes. Here are three key questions that differentiate between the following potential roles at scale that are involved in bringing product direction and building a viable backlog. These roles collectively can work together to help shape the backlog:
- Product Manager
- Product Owner
- Agile Business Analyst
Key Question #1 - Who owns the budget?
The Product Manager (PM) is responsible for the product performance from a business perspective. For example, a Product Manager owns the overall product vision, owns the budget and is responsible for the business model, ensuring that the product will be profitable and meet the mission requirements. In addition, the PM is responsible for the cost structure of the product. The Product Manager is the ultimate decision maker on the product budget.
Key Question #2 - Who accepts the user story?
A Product Owner (PO) has many responsibilities including being a business representative, business analyst and project manager (and these will depend on the organization) and also provides a user focus. A key role performed by a PO is to defining the user story with acceptance criteria. This process, called backlog grooming, is completed with the scrum team. A Product Owner that literally “sits” with the development team and reports to the Product Manager can most effectively bridge the gap between business and IT. At the end of the sprint, the Product Owner is the only person who can accept or reject a user story.
Key Question #3 - Who creates Use Case Scenarios?
So you may ask, “If the Product Owner is vetting out what the user wants and the best way to provide business value, isn’t that a full time job?” The answer is YES! And hence the role and additional capacity of an agile business analyst may be needed in large and complex projects where the work of creating a solid ready-state backlog is bigger than a one-person job. The agile business analyst focuses on identifying edge-cases, error conditions, dependencies and impacts to other systems. An agile business analyst works on breaking down features into smaller, cross-functional stories working closely with the Product Owner and development team. The agile business analyst is in a unique position given the technical knowledge he/she gains by working with the development, testing and DevOps team members.
Each of the above roles have specific deliverables. While Product Owner is a generic term used in agile, every agile team I have worked with struggles with the definition of these roles and how to structure the teams. While it might be ok for one person to play all of the above roles on a small project, in my experience one person cannot do all these roles in large, complex projects. It is important for the team structure and roles to be defined to answer the above three questions, ensuring every team member and stakeholder is keenly aware of these roles and how they are crucial to overall team success for project delivery.
In conclusion, in a large system development effort: The product manager owns the product strategy including budget / roadmap. They would create the Epics which equate to roadmap initiatives. The product owner would own the evolution of some feature set that supports the epic including defining the user stories / acceptance criteria for that feature set. The Agile Business Analyst would assist the product owner in defining system level details needed to elaborate the user stories.
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