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In an Agile project, are product owners leaders or drill sergeants?  The role of product owners evolved out of the roles of project manager, business subject matter expert (SME) and project sponsor from the waterfall environment. In the waterfall model of projects, each of these roles provided different levels of direction, management and leadership. The project manager is the administrator. The SME provides information on what is done today and what they will need in the future. The sponsor’s role included providing resources, framing the scope of the project, providing direction as the project moves forward and to demand that the project delivers. The sponsor and the project manager are generally the outsiders that exhort the team into action . . . they act as drill sergeants. The Agile principle that states that “the business and developers must work together daily” suggests shedding the approach of an outsider exhorting the team and implementing the concept of the product owner as part of the team.

In an Agile project the product owner’s roles include:

  • Owning and prioritizing the product backlog,
  • Providing product vision,
  • Involving customers, users, and other stakeholders, and
  • Collaborating with others on the team.

In my opinion the critical behavior is that of collaboration: the act of working together to produce or create an outcome. The behavior of collaboration requires the product owner to abandon the role drill sergeant and focus on being a leader.

The product owner leads by shaping the backlog and collaborating with their fellow team members. The qualities discussed in the Forbes article are very different from the attributes attributed to the screaming stereotypical drill sergeant.  The product owner will be more successful if they embrace the principle of the business and developers working together in collaboration, making them more of a leader than a drill sergeant.

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