Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

Agile Manifesto

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.

-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliette, Act 2, scene 2.


Product Owner Abstract

The Product Owner is the member of the team responsible for both defining and prioritizing the Team Backlog (Product Backlog in generic Scrum). In addition, the product owner has a significant role in quality, and is the only team member empowered to “accept” new stories into the system baseline. For most enterprises converting to agile, this is a new, and critical role, which typically translates into a full time job (typically one PO per one to two agile teams). The Scrum community provides fairly standardized training for the role.

In the context of SAFe, however, the role takes on additional relationships and responsibilities, primarily via participation in the Product Management Team (often via dotted line report to a Product Manager). Moreover, some of the traditional team-level authorities of the Scrum Product Owner, such as authority for the full product definition, and return on investment (as is often determined by defining pricing and licensing policies, etc.) are either shared with (or more typically the responsibility of) the enterprise Product Manager. Therefore, the product owner role in SAFe has a differing set of responsibilities than are defined in generic Scrum.


Summary Role Description

The Product Owner is the member of the Agile Team who serves as the customer proxy, and is responsible for working with the Product Manager (or Chief Product Owner, Ref [3]) and other stakeholders—including other product owners and the team—to define and prioritize the Team Backlog so that the solution effectively addresses user needs while maintaining technical integrity. As described in the abstract, the SAFe product owner lives in two teams: the development team and the extended product management team. Ideally, the product owner is co-located with the development team, where they typically share management, incentives, and culture. But the product owner also attends most relevant product management meetings, planning, and backlog/vision refinement sessions.

Division of Labor

Since the product manager and product owners share the “content authority” for the solution, it is important to have a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, as is illustrated in the table below.

Product Manager

Product Owner

Market/customer facing Solution/technology/team facing
Colocated with, and reports into marketing/business Colocated with, and reports into development
Owns Vision, pricing, licensing, ROI, and Program Backlog Contributes to Vision and Program Backlog. Owns team backlog and implementation.
Drives PSI and release content via prioritized Features Drives iteration content via prioritized Stories
Establishes feature acceptance criteria Establishes story acceptance criteria, accepts stories into the baseline

Table 1. Typical Product manager and product owner responsibilities in the agile enterprise

Fan-out (Cardinality) of Product Manager, Product Owner and Agile Teams

Successful development is, in part, a game of numbers in the enterprise. Without the right number of people in the right roles, bottlenecks will severely limit velocity. Therefore, the number of product managers, product owners and agile teams must be roughly in balance, or the whole system will spend much of its time waiting for definition, clarification and acceptance. The Framework recommends a fan-out as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Cardinality (Fanout) of Product Manager > Product Owner > Agile Team

Each product manager can usually support up to four product owners, each of whom can be responsible for the backlog for one or two agile teams.

Product Owner Responsibilities

The SAFe product owner fulfills the following primary responsibilities.

  1. Backlog Refinement. With input from the product manager and other stakeholders, the product owner has the primary responsibility to build, prune, and maintain the backlog. The backlog consists mostly of user stories, but also includes defects, refactors and infrastructure work. Backlog items are prioritized based on user value, time dependencies, risk reduction and effort (Weighted Shortest Job First).
  2. Defining iteration content/ Iteration Planning. The product owner reviews and re-prioritizes the backlog as part of the preparatory work for iteration planning, including coordination of content dependencies with other product owners. During the iteration planning meeting, the product owner is the main source for user story detail and priorities, and has the responsibility to accept the final iteration plan.
  3. Just-in-time story elaboration. Most backlog items are elaborated into user stories for implementation. This may happen prior to the iteration, during iteration planning, or during the iteration itself. While any team member can write user stories and acceptance criteria, the product owner has the primary responsibility to keep the process flowing.
  4. Accepting stories into the baseline. The product owner is the only team member who can accept stories into the baseline. This includes validation that the story meets acceptance criteria and that each has the appropriate, persistent acceptance tests. In so doing, the product owner also fulfills a quality assurance function, focusing primarily on fitness for use.
  5. Coordinating the PSI|Release. Iterations and teams both serve a larger purpose – frequent, reliable, and continuous release of value-added software. During the course of each PSI, the product owner coordinates content dependencies with other product owners. This is often accomplished in part by attendance at weekly (or more frequently) product owner team meetings. The product owner also has an instrumental role in producing the aggregated, system/product demo for key program stakeholders.
  6. Preparation and Participation in PSI Planning. As a member of the extended product management team, the product owner is heavily involved in preparation for release planning and also has a significant role in the planning event itself. Prior to the event, the product owner updates the team backlogs and typically participates in reviewing program vision and content presentations. During the event, the product owner is involved with story definition, providing clarifications necessary to assist the team with their story estimates, sprint loading, story sequencing, and drafting the team’s specific objectives for the upcoming PSI.

In addition, the Product Owner participates as an active member of the extended Product Manager/Product Owner team, where they contribute to Vision and Roadmap, and actively participate in program level backlog refinement and release planning preparation.

Learn More

[1] Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise.  Addison-Wesley, 2011. Chapter 11.

[2] Larman, Craig, Vodde, Bas. Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Large, Multisite and Offshore Product Development with Large-Scale Scrum. B  Addison-Wesley, 2010. Chapter 3.

[3] Pichler, Roman. Agile Product Management with Scrum: Creating Products that Customers Love.  Addison-Wesley, 2010.

Last Modified 21 February, 2014

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