Overcoming Product Owner Challenges in an Agile Environment

Two team members working at a white desk, typing and writing notes
Two team members working at a white desk, typing and writing notes
Two team members working at a white desk, typing and writing notes

If you are launching a digital product, it’s essential that you sign a product owner from the start. Smaller teams, however, may lack the resources needed to have product owners in a dedicated role. Even large businesses with adequate budgets often overlook what a specific product owner role brings to a digital project or confuse it with product or project management.

The lack of awareness around the purpose and importance of a product owner’s role is just one of their challenges. Let’s look at what product owners are, why your project needs one and how they differ from other similar functions...

What’s the point of a product owner role?

Product owners are specific to Agile-minded teams. They are the appointed leader of the Scrum team. What does that mean?

Let us give you an analogy. In fashion, for example, the tailor is the person who stitches the garment. But to actually produce that garment, a different role has done all of the extra work required, such as sourcing materials, agreeing on relationships and creating patterns.

In digital products, developers are the tailors - they are the ones writing the code and ‘stitching’ the elements together. However, there needs to be a central leadership role that can help manage the many other aspects of the project. In Agile development, where features are agreed, planned, and then worked on cyclically, this tactical managerial function is more important than ever.

At most organisations, this role will fall to either a product owner or product manager. However, smaller organisations rarely have both, which often means product managers must take on owner duties.

Product owners vs product managers vs project managers

In the world of digital products, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about product owners vs product managers. When you add in the traditional project management role, things become even more complex.

Unfortunately, there is no completely universal differentiation between ‘owners’ and ‘managers’ - but there are some key aspects to each role. Before we move onto challenges, let’s look at the specifics of the roles in a bit more detail.

Product manager

A product manager role is about defining a product’s vision and strategy - outlining how the product is released and how it can be brought to market while guiding iterations that will match user expectations. Product managers are usually more strategy focused and less technical, becoming the interface through with stakeholders, marketing and sales can interact with the product team. A product manager is likely the role that develops and manages the product’s roadmap.

Product owner

Product owners, however, take a more technical and intensive role that is directly related to the scrum team. The product owner translates strategy and user needs into actionable tasks and works in the Agile methodology to give technical teams the resources they need to meet goals. For example, a mobile product owner will re-organise backlogs, attend stand-ups and scrums, optimise the value of each development member’s time and manage the workflow of the team at large. Product managers are responsible for gathering requirements and building user stories to drive internal focus.

As you can tell, the roles are quite similar but have distinct differences. While both ultimately guide your digital product’s development process, the product owner has a more tactical, internally-facing focus. Sometimes organisations that can’t afford/justify both positions can have the role combined - in which case that person has to remember this key difference: “Product owner is the role you play on a Scrum team. Product manager is the job.”

Project manager

Project management is a far broader role that oversees the entire project from both an internal and external standpoint. Project managers deal with every team across a business and are responsible for resource planning as a whole, but they don’t get involved in the task-by-task structure of a development team’s product cycle. In a non-Agile organisation, a project manager is likely the only person overseeing the full strategy of a business. Sadly, this can mean they’ll also end up being expected to manage products - but as we’ve discussed, it’s a full role (and often two) all to itself.

Product owner challenges

Most product owners are familiar with being misunderstood. Project management is a far more common role in organizations, which often leads to them being confused for project managers or project managers being asked to manage the product team. But that’s far from the only challenge…

Not being solely focused on product ownership

Product managers are often given a product owner role/duties and then struggle with the weight of the dual (sometimes conflicting) responsibilities.

The management of the product team is the most direct duty of a product owner. Their role is specifically around capturing user needs, translating that to actionable development output and then planning the cycle to build it. Where a product manager should be ‘out’ of the office to capture customer needs and build the product roadmap, the owner needs to be in the office and amongst the delivery team.

Lack of technical aptitude

A product owner might not know how to code - because they don’t really need to. A product owner’s challenges are instead around understanding user needs and how the product can meet them. Unfortunately, a lack of technical knowledge can also lead to added friction between you and the team because it hinders your ability to estimate the time and resources needed for certain tasks. The ability to write code means you can formulate technical requirements more effectively.

Securing buy-in

Product owners are often in the ‘nitty-gritty’ of the product’s technical journey. However, they are also often called to explain actions or get buy-in from stakeholders/senior management. This means you’ll need to be able to set expectations early and keep your distance from individual stakeholder expectations. Try inviting them to sprint reviews rather than collecting input one by one.

Interpreting user feedback

The product owner’s role is all about translating user needs and feedback into feature iterations. To do this, they must A) write tests that can uncover product issues or areas for improvement and B) collect and interpret user research and translate it into clear product actions.

Leading Agile development & task ordering

Why should a product owner attend a daily scrum? Well, their role is a centralised, tactical one - which requires an awareness of what everyone in the team is doing and how the product is being touched each sprint. If you have a product manager in addition to the owner, they’ll lead the overall product team - but it’s the owner who leads the development team and their sprints.

Product owners need to keep their development teams focused and on track, even as mid-project changes or requests pop up. A product owner must learn to define priorities based on user stories, creating focused ‘must-have’ high impact features that can more easily secure a consensus agreement from stakeholders and minimise the frequency of lesser requests.

What does a product owner do during a scrum? They lead the team by creating the product backlog and planning/tracking items delivered during sprints. This direction can not be questioned - your developers must convince you if they want any part of the backlog changed. That’s why the product owner attending every daily scrum is truly vital.

Managing the backlog

Perhaps the most crucial part of product ownership is managing the product backlog in a way that ensures visibility across all teams. To accomplish this, you need a way to give developers access to all of the backlog information - but you must also be managing the backlog to keep it clear and concise. If it’s full and poorly organised, developers will likely ignore the deeper issues.

To summarise product owner’s main challenges are:

  1. Not being solely focused on product ownership

  2. Lack of technical aptitude

  3. Securing buy-in

  4. Interpreting user feedback

  5. Leading Agile development & task ordering

  6. Managing the backlog

Work with an agency that understands product owner challenges

Hopefully, this has given you a greater insight into the various challenges product owner have to face in their day-to-day. If you feel at odds with product ownership, we might be able to help!

Got an idea? Let us know.

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