Product owners play a pivotal role in all Agile projects. This is true whether a product owner exists or not. Since the role is so critical it should be easy to define the role of product owner. However, most definitions tend to quickly devolve into a list of responsibilities that depend on implementation and scale. One of the most critical and often most variable roles of the product owner is that of the interface between the team and the outside world. The outside world includes users, customers, stakeholders, sponsors, and sometimes other product owners and teams. We can visualize the interface role on a continuum that on one end includes the product owner acting as a highly structured conduit for information from outside the team to a facilitator of conversations on the other end of the continuum.
The conduit role guides and shapes the information flow to the team. When the product owner interprets their role in this manner they gather and parse information to the team. Where the product owner has great personal charisma and/or power they often have an enormous reach, which opens up all sorts of information sources that would not be available.
The conduit interpretation of the product owner role is risky for at least two reasons. The first is because the product owner gathers and parses all of the information the team pulls in and his or her natural biases will affect what the team hears. If the product owner’s interpretation is wrong so will be the rest of the team. Secondly, any process flow that must go through a single point is apt to become a bottleneck. Information bottlenecks will reduce the efficiency of the team, and if the team gets too frustrated with the flow of information they will potentially go around the bottleneck or just make up answers. This will reduce team effectiveness.
The facilitator interpretation of the role is the best scenario. In this interpretation of the interface role, the product owner helps anyone on the team to the network to the source of information they need. In theory, this is wonderful because it reduces any chance of a bottleneck and maximizes the flow of information. Product owners with strong networks and good organizational knowledge are required to make this work effectively. The most significant potential downside to the facilitator interpretation is if there is no strong central vision of what is being delivered, the lack of unifying interpretation of information coming to the group can cause team members to strike off in wrong directions. The strong project or product vision is crucial keeping everyone on the same page without having to have the product owner acting as a hall monitor.
One of the important aspects of the role of a product owner is to guide the vision of what is being delivered. Information flow integral to the vision. Having a well-crafted and shared vision allows the product owner to decide whether they have to collect and parse each bit of information a team needs or can introduce others and let the information flow more freely. Both ends of the continuum can be effective depending on the team and organization culture. (We will discuss the product owner’s role in shaping culture next).