Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What type of Product Owner are you?

The Scrum Primer has a very clear definition for a Product Owner. "[The PO] is responsible for maximizing return on investment (ROI) by identifying product
features, translating these into a prioritized list, deciding which should be at the top of the list for the next Sprint, and continually re-prioritizing and refining the list ..."

In corporate practice, however, PO is not PO.  Here are two considerations. These are not intended to value persons or their skill, but simply the PO's place in the organization.

Strong vs. Weak Product Owner

You can determine your PO strength with a single question: If they have a great new idea for their product, what do they do? There are many possible answers, but let's take this power scale for orientation:
The strongest Product Owners simply proceed when they are convinced.
Moderately strong PO's rally stakeholder support before proceeding.
Weak Product Owners ask others for permission.
Really weak Product Owners will not even proceed with their own ideas.

Real vs. Fake Product Owner

What does "real" vs. "fake" even mean?
Real Product Owners build their product to make it successful.
They hold the cash pile and can freely decide whether to spend money to build that new fancy feature or to throw a pool party for the team, should they consider the latter to be more valuable.  They thrive on unspoken customer need, because usually, the customer does not even know what they need.

Fake Product Owners, on the other hand, assist someone else in building their product. They receive requirements on a silver platter, grooming, refining and prioritizing them - and do whatever is necessary that everyone is happy with the result. They usually get assigned teams and/or budgets, and their responsibility is delivering a positive business case lest management decides to discontinue the product.

The Matrix

PO != PO

Strong & real Product Owners are the ideal of Scrum and agile Software development. With the right product vision and the right team, they will be wildly successful.

Weak & real Product Owners will continually run a tremendous risk of building the wrong product. In a highly political environment, they are most likely doomed to fail.

Strong & Fake Product Owners are quite comparable to Product Managers - the product is theirs to create, given outside input. To succeed, they must either depend on a Real Product Owner or hope that their direction pleases the customer.

Weak & Fake Product Owners are not even all that rare - we typically call them "Business Analysts". They are not involved in the financial success of the product. Their role is limited to preventing predictable failure.


It is neither good or bad to be anywhere on the matrix. It only becomes "bad" when you are that Product Owner and you feel that you should not be in this specific quadrant - then you must ask "How can we change that?"
If you have just concluded that your product is lacking a strong & real Product Owner, now would be a good time to look for one ...


  1. You forgot to mention that there are also Proxy-Product Owners. They are more common than you might think. ;-)

  2. I agree, Proxy Product Owners are really common - let us analyse how they would map to my classification.

    A Proxy PO is clearly a Fake Product Owner: they don't build their own product. As an extreme example, they do not have the power to decide simply discontinuing the product and building fluffy toy bunnies instead.

    Often, they are also put into a weak position by their organization, being forced to rely on external input and approvals for changes.

    For deeper reading on "Fake Product Owners", read more here:

    Keep in mind that these classifiers are not an indication of an individual's value or skill, but of the organization effectiveness.

  3. Totally agree and hard to handle as SM in a highly political environment where you should count on a good PO