Organizational culture is a reflection of the beliefs, ideologies, policies, and practices of an organization. Culture is important because it guides what and how work gets done. Team culture, in Agile, in addition to being influenced by the organization’s culture is heavily influenced by the product owner’s interpretation of the organization’s culture.

Product owners are a part of the leadership structure in Agile teams. Leadership in Agile teams include some combination of Scrum master, product owner, team leader, coach and/or team members.  The product owner has a special level of power and leadership as the voice of business and often as the conduit to the sponsor’s wallet. The leader’s role of shaping the culture of the team (and by extension other teams) falls heavily on the product owner’s shoulders. Product owners, when the right person fills the role, are perfectly situated to shape a team’s culture. The execution of this role is severely hampered when the PO falls prey to any of the anti-patterns, such as proxy or disinterested product owners.  

Product owners influence culture through many activities, including:

  • Shape the vision: the product owner is the voice of the business and the customer in Agile. The product vision the foundation for all work and acts as the compass for teams. The product vision often reflects the collaboration of the product owner and other stakeholders and sponsors. However at the team level the product owner owns and communicates the vision. The vision shapes culture by sending a message to the team about how they are perceived and the importance of their contributions.
  • Goal setting and prioritization: shaping what and how much work gets done defines the team to those both inside and outside of the team. A product owner that influences a team to tackle business issues with new and innovative approaches will be perceived as innovative. Alternately, a product owner that exhorts a team to overcommit sends the message that the team is not dependable and possibly allows the team to develop a culture where dependability is not valued.
  • Problem management:  While the Scrum master and/or coach is often tagged with removing barriers for performance, the product owner plays an important role in resolving many types of problems due to their unique position as the voice of the business. The attitude and the environment they foster towards identifying, discussing and resolving  issues will be emulated by the team. A product owner that avoids transparency should not expect transparency from the team.
  • Performance feedback: Feedback is a powerful force to shape and reinforce culture within a team. Simple feedback is useful to reinforce positive behavior.  Additionally, feedback sends a message to the entire team which can build esprit de corp, confidence and energy.  Classically, a manager would perform these duties; however given that the product owner plays such a powerful leadership role, the delivery of feedback must shared across all leadership roles.

The product owner is not the only influencer on team culture.  The organization and other leaders have a hand in generating and maintaining a team’s culture.  However, the product owner, because of their unique position as the voice of the business and customers, tends to excerpt more weight than almost anyone else involved at the team level.