What is the difference between a business analyst and a product owner?

productfernJuly 3, 2020

Ah, the age old question, what is the difference between a business analyst and a product owner? I think it’s a question asked many times because it’s one which doesn’t have a simple answer. Often your opinion of which is which and even which is better depends on what you’ve been exposed to. Organisations may have a preference for business analysts, product owners, both or even neither!

It also starts to depend on what you’re delivering and where you are in your product lifecycle. But when it comes down to it, the two roles overlap.

Essentially, as explained in the ‘what is product ownership‘ article, the product owner OWNS the product. They make decisions about it and live and breathe it. The business analyst works to understand, shape and define a product, often working very closely with the product owner.

Therefore, it’s relatively common to have a product owner who is supported by a business analyst. It’s pretty difficult to just manage a product on your own. The business analyst often brings specialist skills whereas the product owner may be directly from the business. You can also have a product owner who IS a business analyst.

At the end of the day, the main difference is that if you are making decisions about the product and having the final say, then you are acting as a product owner.

If you are doing supporting activities like proposing a backlog, analysing requirements and creating a service then you could be either the product owner or a business analyst.

Image showing two men looking at a wall with many post it notes on it, symbolising the similarities when discussing the difference between a business analyst and a product owner.

What is the difference between a business analyst and a product owner on a scrum team?

As product owner is a scrum term, it’s important to consider it in terms of that methodology. In pure Scrum, the Business Analyst role does not exist. The only role which represents the business is the Product Owner. The PO is responsible for creating and managing the backlog for the development team.

The problem came here in that the product owner was often someone who wasn’t technically minded. They often came from the business, or were even doing a PO role on the side of an operational role. This meant that they didn’t have the time to dedicate to the backlog or the experience to write stories for development.

In Scrum, the business analyst comes in to support the product owner. I’ve seen the following as a common split between the two roles in many Scrum projects:

  • The product owner has the final say for any decisions. The BA may prepare options and impact assess things but the PO has the go / no go decision.
  • The BA writes the stories for the development team. The PO often reviews and signs them off.
  • The BA does analysis to help inform the backlog or to define other areas of the service, like process mapping. The PO often reviews and signs them off.
  • Both roles should be present in all standard ceremonies. Occasionally the BA can step in for holiday or for some of the daily stand ups.

Can you have a combined role of a business analyst and product owner?

Most definitely yes! I actually think it is a really good idea. That said, if you are using a Business Analyst then they must be very familiar with the subject matter of the product. In order to really get value from a product, the PO needs to know the sector, the users and everything about it. This can be learnt but if you want a PO who is up to speed very quickly then it might make more sense to take one from the business rather than a Business Analyst.

I’ve seen many times a Business Analyst works with a PO, then when the PO leaves, the BA takes over the role.

How do you decide which role to have?

The ideal answer is to have both! Whether you call it a BA or a PO, as long as the activities the roles do is covered then you are on the right track. If you are following Scrum then you will need a Product Owner.

It also really depends on the size of your team. If you are a large team managing a major product then I definitely recommend having both roles. For a small product team then you could have a combined BA / PO role.

How you should describe the difference between the two roles?

Right, with all that said, how do you actually describe the difference? If someone asks me outright in a project then I’d usually say, the roles are very similar and overlap in terms of responsibilities. The main difference is that the product owner makes all decisions regarding a product which a business analyst won’t do. It’s also more common for a business analyst to have more specialised skills for working with a tech team.

But at the end of the day, the roles could be done by the same person. And even with all that said, if your organisation has defined the roles differently then be sure to check your job specs and go from there!

What next?

Expand your knowledge on business analysis by checking out our other similar articles:

What do you think the difference between a business analyst and a product owner is? Comment below.

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