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The Definitive List of Product Owner Responsibilities

September 29, 2022

14 minute read

Defining product owner responsibilities should be a pretty easy thing to do right? Right? Well… sort of, not really, and here’s why – the definition of product owner ranges from company to company and, to make it even more convoluted, a product owner and a product manager are often confused – their roles and responsibilities are blurry at best and overlapping at worst.

Also, does the title really shed light on what the job is? Does a product owner actually ‘own’ the product? No, they don’t – they own building the right product – but… I’m getting ahead of myself we’ll come back to that later.

We’ve written about the difference between a product manager and a product owner before, you can read about that here. In this article, we will build upon the original product owner description and drill down into what it means to be a product owner, where they sit, and what the specific responsibilities are.

But first – a history lesson.

A potted history of product owners

Before product owners and agile, there were product managers and waterfall, and they were slow. Product managers would spend ages hammering out details, documenting it to within an inch of its life, then throw it over the wall to development. Often, what came out at the end looked nothing like what these poor product managers had in mind. So they would start the process again, and often again – there had to be another way.

In the 90s some cool cats got together and created new and exciting frameworks like Scrum, XP, Crystal, and DSDM. The aim of these new frameworks was to create an agile way of working – let’s pinch zoom in on Scrum. The “sweet spot” of Scrum, born in the center of a Venn of building the right thing, building the thing right, and building it fast. You can read about it in further detail in Robbin Schuurman’s excellent medium blog. (I shall try not to cannibalize my paraphrasing below.)

Product Owner responsibility venn diagram

Each circle in the Venn diagram is a role within the agile Scrum team. 

  • The product owner – (is in charge of) – building the right thing
  • Development team – building the thing right
  • Scrum master – building the thing fast

And this folks is how the role of the product owner was born. Looking at their responsibilities, within the scrum framework, you wouldn’t be wrong to think… Hey, a product owner sounds a lot like a product manager. And, my astute friend, that’s right. They do sound the same… because they sort of are. Product owner as a job title was invented to make people think differently about their way of working.

To successfully switch to scrum methodology product managers had to be replaced by something new – a product owner. The scrum maker’s hypothesized that this had a higher success rate in getting product teams to work and remain agile. Keeping product managers in the framework risked falling back into waterfall.

So there you go – that’s how product owners became a thing.

What is a product owner?

A product owner is focused on building the right thing and they do that by:

  • Managing the product backlog (grooming and prioritizing)
  • Managing user stories & product specs (creating and actioning for the dev team)
  • Reviewing completed user stories and ensuring that they fit the brief

Looking at the core responsibilities of a product owner you see that their day-to-day work is tactical and focused on ensuring a successful sprint is completed by the development team.

Seems like a pretty straightforward definition, right?

So why is there so much confusion around what a product owner actually is?

Firstly, the confusion stems from the fact that there are about three versions of what a product owner is. For some, it’s a very tactical member of the team, for others a lot more strategy is involved and is designed to be the proxy for the voice of the customer, and finally, a sort of Frankenstein amalgamation of a product owner and a scrum master where they manage the sprints along with the backlog.

Secondly, there might not actually be a specific product owner on the team, it could be a transferable role. It might just be a very frazzled product manager wearing the product owner hat when needed.

Thirdly, a product owner is a role that is integral in a fully agile team, but how many organizations are truly there yet? As anyone working in digital industries can attest, digital transformation can take a really long time and the adoption of agile and full transition to this way of working isn’t always fast and easy. This means for many product owners, or product managers acting as product owners, they’re in the middle of a long, slow march towards agile working with blockers coming from all directions.

Lastly, being a product owner doesn’t mean you own the product. Yeah, I know. It sucks. But while you might not have the final say as a product owner, you do have the power to shape and steer the product to where it’s meant to go. You take feedback and influence from the business owner, the customer, and the market and ensure the development team is building the right thing.

What is the difference between a product owner and a product manager?

A product owner is a very specific tactical role with very specific responsibilities (or should be in theory).

The easiest way to differentiate between the two is that product owners own the backlog and product managers the roadmap. That means the product manager is in charge of telling the whole company where the product is going and the product owner is the person telling the dev team exactly what to do to get there.
If you’d like to get into this in even more detail you can read Janna’s awesome blog here.

What are the core product owner responsibilities?

We’ve looked at the history of product owners, what one is and what one isn’t… Now let’s take a magnifying glass to the core product owner responsibilities.

1. Turning the product strategy into user stories and tasks for development

Having a clear and defined strategy is needed for a product to be successful. To get there you need to have clear and defined user stories for the product to get built correctly. If you ask any product owner they’ll tell you that they spend about 400% of their time creating user stories.

Creating great user stories is an art form. You need to clearly articulate the purpose of your request from the perspective of the end user in a natural and non-complicated way. Want to know how to write a user story? We’ve got you covered – check out this very simple how-to, or learn something new with 5 quick wins here.

2. Managing, grooming and prioritizing the product and development backlogs

Managing, grooming, and prioritizing the product backlog goes hand in hand with creating user stories. A user story is the smallest unit of work within the agile framework, you make them from the idea/product backlog. Product roadmapping is ProdPad’s bread-and-butter and we know that a development backlog and a product backlog are two separate things. 

I would argue that a product manager should manage the product backlog. Because let’s be real here – there is so much noise in a product backlog. The ideas that will never see the light of day need to stay away from development. But once ideas are definitely happening that’s when it’s time for a product owner to step in and own the management of those ideas being broken up into user stories, epics, and tasks and then move them into the development backlog.

The product owner is the master and commander of the development backlog. They protect the dev team by ensuring that the development backlog is exactly what is to be worked on each sprint. The dev team will love you for it. You’ll love the clarity of having your backlogs split between your product management tool and your development tool. We’ve written extensively on the subject and I invite you to have a look at all of our articles about product backlogs.

3. Managing the relationship between product and development teams

Relationship management – it’s a big and important part of your job – developers much like Liam Neeson, have a “specific set of skills”, and they have very specific needs to ensure they can deliver their work quickly and efficiently. 

As a product owner you’re the gatekeeper to the development team – never a blocker, but a gatekeeper information flows through you in both directions – it’s up to you to make sure that you enable that free flow of information. And remember the development pipeline also includes a lot of DevOps work that won’t necessarily be in the backlog or on the roadmap and it’s your responsibility to make sure that the product team knows how the development time is being used and what will come out of each sprint.

4. Being the voice of the customer – ensuring that they are represented during development

To be the voice of the customer you need to understand the needs of the customer and you’ll learn that from user testing, market research, product vision, and user personas to list a few – you will take all the information that the product team, sales team, customer service team, and marketing teams are collecting and use all of that information to inform how you write user stories. 

5. Being available to answer questions from the development team

This is a very simple and easy-to-forget responsibility but it’s so important that ensuring you’re available to answer any questions that come up during a sprint in a timely manner means there is less of a chance that you’ll have spillover which causes lost sleep for many PO’s and scrum masters. 

So you’ve got to be across what’s in the sprint backlog and what’s coming up in the next sprint so that you’re there to answer questions as and when they pop up. 

6. Being able to articulate the product vision

This is super important – and is really simple to show what can happen if you can’t. We all played broken telephone as children at some point I’m sure – where you started is often really far away from where you began.

The reason why it’s so important that you as the product owner know how to articulate the product vision is you are the last word before something goes from idea to reality if you aren’t clear then it’s likely what comes out of the sprint won’t be fit for purpose. Don’t underestimate how valuable it is to bring everyone along with the vision.

7. Attend daily standups, planning sessions, reviews, and retrospectives

This doesn’t need a lot of explanation – it’s lots of different sorts of meetings but to be successful you need to be really good at listening and also at making sure your voice (and the customer’s) is heard.

8. Keep on top of releases

This is really important – once the sprint has shipped people need to know what that means. Products need to be launched, bug updates need to be shared, release notes need to be written, sales need to update their decks and marketing need to tell everyone about it and the list goes on. 

As you can see, a product owner needs to be a very technical and organized person who can guide the development team in the right direction whilst also protecting their time and sanity by keeping their backlog clear of unfinished ideas. 

Product owner responsibilities vs product manager responsibilities 

For clarity, it’s worth having a quick look at the core responsibilities of a product manager at this stage – just so, if you are in one of those hybrid product manager/product owner roles, you understand where the lines should be, should you wish to unpick the tangle of mixed responsibilities and make the case for two roles. It’ll also help you decide which of those two roles you’d rather have. 

Product managers are typically responsible for…

  • Turning business strategy into product strategy and executing that strategy
  • Owning the product roadmap
  • Owning the product life cycle from ideation to go-to-market
  • Planning and executing product launches
  • Stakeholder management
  • Supporting product marketing and customer success with insights on the market and the latest updates to the product
  • Writing product requirement documentation
  • Managing all the customer feedback, ideas, and bugs
  • Supporting the product owner with any questions they might have on the product strategy

As you can see – it is a broad role with a lot of people management, it’s very strategic and to be really successful you need to be able to look at a lot of things at the same time and not get stuck in the weeds.

Where does a product owner sit within an organization?

This can vary from organization to organization, depending on the way in which a product team is structured. As we’ve said, the product owner might also be the product manager – as the always quotable Melissa Perri says “Product owner is a role you play on a scrum team. The product manager is the job.” So, let’s keep this pretty simple. 

A product owner will sit within a product team as the gateway to the development team. They will likely report to either a chief product officer, head of product or chief product owner.

If there is a head of product and a chief product owner then it’s likely that the product managers will report to the head of product and the product owners will report to the chief product owner.

The product owner will then be responsible for managing the relationship between the product team to their scrum group/team/squad and within that squad, there will be a scrum master, a product owner, and developers.

And it would look something like this:

Scrum org chart

What are the skills needed to be a product owner?

A product owner really shines if they have a mix of the below skills:

  • You love organizing things
  • You are technically minded
  • You’re very confident talking to stakeholders and managing their expectations
  • You can say no
  • You’ve been certified in Scrum or an agile methodology
  • You really want to be a product owner

How to be successful as a product owner

To be a successful product owner you have to be organized and be really on top of the roadmap and the backlog. A way to make sure you can do this is to use the right tool, this is where ProdPad (or a product management tool) comes in. Your product managers are filling ProdPad with ideas, and feedback, and managing the roadmap and as a product owner you can push all those ideas – once you’re happy with them –  into your sprint planner. 

You can break ideas down into multiple user stories, and push them through to Jira, Trello, or whatever development tool you use, and when they are finished, push them back into ProdPad so you can validate the success of each sprint’s output and run your retrospectives from there. 

Organization is key to being a successful product owner and having a tool that creates visibility whilst also creating space between a developer’s backlog and the entire product backlog is just a chef’s kiss moment quite frankly. See for yourself how it can work for you by starting a free trial today.

So there you have it, not only the definitive list of product owner responsibilities but also a history of product owners, where they sit within an organization, and what makes a good product owner. If you think that I’ve missed something I’d love to hear about it in the comment section.

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