What is product ownership?

productfernMay 30, 2020

Whether you are a product owner or a product manager, the concept of managing products has infiltrated many organisations. By treating a system as a product, it means that we can manage it in a way which puts the user and value first.

If you think about traditional products, from chairs to TVs, we manage them in a specific way. When we create them, we create a prototype which is tested and honed. When they are released, there will likely be several different models which bring new features each time. And when we decide that they no longer provide value, we retire them from the catalogue.

If we consider systems or even services as products, it puts us in a mindset to take them through the same lifecycle. We are able to build, iterate and improve.

If we think about a physical product, there has to be someone who has the final say as to whether a button will be added, or the shape of the seat changed. This role has translated into the role of a product owner. Someone who is responsible for the product. They are responsible for ensuring the product provides value. They have the final say for what the product does and the its features.

For now, I will use product owner and product manager interchangeably. I will dive a bit deeper in the possible differences between the two professions in a later post.

An image of a white ikea chair to illustrate the concept of a chair product owner.

What does a product owner / manager do?

If you want to be a product owner, then it generally relies on you being a subject matter expert (SME) in your product. The most important thing a product owner can do, is to really understand their product, the product users and what value the product can bring.

As the product owner, you are the voice of the product. It is your job to ensure the product is created in the best way possible, determine the future of your product and communicate the vision and value to other stakeholders.

It is common for a product owner to work closely with a business analyst who will help to do some of the analysis. However, it is becoming more common for both roles to be combined.

A typical list of product owner activities includes:

  • Understanding and defining the product. If the product is new, then you will be responsible for defining the product and being the voice of the product at all times.
  • Understanding and conducting user research. Key to being a successful product owner, is thoroughly understanding your users. You will need to work closely with user research to understand the context, pain points and joy that your users experience.
  • Managing the product backlog and requirements. If the product is being developed, then there will need to be a product backlog. You will need to define these requirements and prioritise work within the backlog, especially if you are working in Scrum agile delivery.
  • Defining the product roadmap. While some features may be in development, it is your responsibility to define the future of the product.
  • Managing any supporting processes for the product. Your product doesn’t exist in isolation. You also need to be aware of processes which surround it and how to make them successful.
  • Managing any dependencies with other products. Often there will be closely linked products, you will need to understand and manage these.
  • Reviewing feedback and product suggestions. Once a product is live, you should be receiving feedback and suggestions. You can then prioritise into a product backlog.
  • Communicating and working with a wide range of stakeholders. Again, you are the voice, emblem and driver of your product! It is your job to share it and make everyone understand how great it really is.

To sum up, there are a huge number of techniques and different methods a product owner can use. However, it’s key for those techniques to be used to drive one of the activities in the list above.

Why does an organisation need one?

In all organisations, there are different team members working together to create a product. It is important that there is a single point of responsibility for the product and they have the final say on decisions. This means the team is more productive and produces changes to the product faster than deciding as a team.

That said, the product owner isn’t tyrannical in owning the product. The product owner takes the opinions of the team and most importantly the user needs and wants into every product decision.

Product management has long proved successful, and moving to turn services or systems into products brings with it many benefits. It’s widely documented why companies are shifting to product based teams.

That said, only by having excellent product owners who understand both the product and how to manage it are successful in delivering in this way. It’s common to have product owners take this role up alongside their day job. I’ve definitely seen the most successful product owners be those who dedicate all their time to managing and championing their product.

How do I train to be a product owner / manager?

There generally isn’t a set career path which leads to becoming a product owner. As mentioned, in many organisations, the product owner is from the team who uses the product. That said, many dedicated product owners might start off with a degree ranging from business to marketing to IT.

Once you decide to move into being a product owner, there are several certifications which can help.

Certifications to be a product owner

One of the best places to start is with the courses offered by General Assembly. They have taster sessions which can be completed in an evening, to a 10 week product owner bootcamp.

As a product owner is derived from Scrum, there are two popular Scrum certifications, these include:

  • Scrum alliance CSPO – certified scrum product owner. This certification requires a 2 day training course before taking an exam to confirm your knowledge. The courses can be done online. Generally I’ve seen this certification completed less in the UK compared to the scrum.org option. This can be the more expensive option as many of the 2 day courses cost upwards of ?800.
  • Scrum.org PSPO – professional scrum product owner. The scrum.org option is split into three levels. The first level can be done without any formal classroom training. There is recommended reading before completing the online exam which costs ?150. This is a quick and easy option to get a formal certification if you’re already working as a product owner.
    The second two levels require online or in person training courses combined with experience to be completed.

I would suggest joining a short course or online webinar before committing to expensive formal qualifications.

What next?

Finally, what a product owner does is closely linked to business analysis and user research. Check out the ‘what is business analysis‘ and ‘what is user research‘ articles to learn more.

Does this definition of product ownership match your experience? Comment your thoughts below.

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