There are many different types of Product Owners in the world, so let us examine the common ways I have seen Product Ownership implemented in the wild from the most powerful to the least powerful.
- God (or Goddess) of the Product: this is the most powerful of all the Product Owners on this list and the type of Product Owner envisioned by the Scrum Guide. This Product Owner is the complete owner of everything about the product – scope, dates, requirements, budget, profits, etc. If you are this type of Product Owner, one of the main decisions you need to make is if you are going to be a benevolent god (or goddess) or capricious.
- Co-creator with the Stakeholders: at this level, we have Product Owners who collaborate with the Stakeholders as a trusted colleague to build and deliver the best product possible. While not the final decision-maker, this class of Product Owner has considerable authority and latitude about scope, dates, requirements, priorities and needs. In many cases, this type of Product Owner is indistinguishable from a god (or goddess) of the product. For many Product Owners who reside at the lower levels of this continuum, they aspire to reach this level of power and authority. If you have achieved this level of Product Ownership, give yourself a High Five because you are definitely a player.
- Owner of one part of a larger system: moving up in our scale of power, we find a Product Owner that is the owner of one (or more) areas within a much larger product. This is a common patten in large, enterprise systems or enterprise products. As a result, this type of Product Owner has to negotiate and work with other owners (managers, stakeholders, other Product Owners, etc) of the larger system in order to deliver a complete product. This has its own set of challenges related to coordination, but at least the Product Owner is the king (or queen) of their kingdom. At this level, the Product Owner normally works with a product manager or Chief Product Owner, who are the ones responsible for the delivery of the complete product.
- Owner of short term projects: this class of Product Owner leads a small product (or project) with limited scope. This is where we begin to see the outlines of real Product Ownership. However, Product Owners of this type are not really product managers but a type of project manager responsible for delivering a (usually) fixed scope on a (usually) fixed deadline. Because the organizations these Product Owners work in are predominately project-based rather product-based, it is possible that after the delivery of the finished work the Product Owner will be reassigned to another small project.
- Order taker: this type of Product Owner has the responsibility to execute and deliver the ideas of others. It is an improvement over the analyst with a new job title, but not by much. In this case, the Product Owner has some authority to make decisions, but that decision-making authority is very limited. If you find yourself here as a Product Owner, I recommend leveling up or remaining as analyst within the Development Team.
- Analyst with a new job title: Product Owners of this type have no authority to make any decisions that affect the product in any meaningful way and are the weakest of all the Product Owners on this list. Michael James would call this person a Fake Product Owner and I agree with him. Many Product Owners start at this level and find this role extremely frustrating. If you find yourself here, either remain an analyst within the Development Team or level up.
Recently, a trusted colleague of mine pointed out that “Product Owner as god” is actually an anti-pattern for Product Owners. They are right! Product Owners who think they are gods tend to exhibit a host of anti-social behaviors not conducive to collaboration and healthy teams. We need less of these types of people working with Scrum and Agile teams.
I am glad my colleague pointed out this flaw because my thinking on this topic has evolved in the last eighteen months. I would no longer call the peak “God or (goddess) of the Product.” For me, it would be more accurate to say the peak is “Collaborative Visionary” or something along those lines. The idea is to emphasize the fact that Product Owners are most powerful when the convince people of the power of their vision and collaborate with others to achieve product success.
However, I do want to leave the original description of this article as historical document and to point out the anti-pattern – CEN 02/27/2020