Do you need a product owner?

Do you need a product owner? Many organizations seem to think so. Scrum.org says a product owner is “responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team”. That certainly seems like an important role to fill. But Joshua Kerievsky wrote in 2016 that customer-obsessed teams don’t have product owners.

Having a formal product owner, he argues, means engineers merely implement. They are absolved of responsibility for the final product. “Massive technical debt, poor reliability, ugly UIs, bad usability and new, barely used features” are due to having product owners. Companies that produce excellent products send engineers out into the field to learn from real-life customers. This means there’s no need for a product owner because everyone is a product owner.

Kerievsky is right, in part. Putting all responsibility for the product on one person is a recipe for disaster. Customer focus is not something you can bolt on at the end. If the people building the product don’t have the customer in mind as they build it, the product will reflect that. Regardless of what the product owner does.

But responsibility and sole responsibility are not the same. Engineers need to think of the customer as they build the product. And the product owner is responsible for keeping the engineers focused. The proper role for the product owner is not setting product direction, it is setting culture direction.

As Eran Davidoff wrote, we are all product owners. Not just engineering teams, but everyone in the company. Marketing, sales, and everyone else must focus on driving impact, not completing tasks. Positive business impact means understanding the customer and meeting their needs. Sometimes the customer is an internal customer, not the end customer. But meeting the needs of internal customers can indirectly help the end customer.

Ultimately, the job of the product owner – be it an internal or external product – is to make sure the measurements match the goals and that the goals match the mission. After all: we get what we measure.

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