Good Bye “Product Owner”, Hello “Backlog Manager”

By | June 27, 2011


by Saeed Khan

A few weeks back, I wrote a pair of posts about the title/role of Product Owner in Agile development environments:

In those two posts, I talked about some of the problems with the role and general definition of “Product Owner”, as well as the “scope creep” that seems to be occurring by Scrum advocates that give more and more “Product” responsibility to that role (e.g. budget, strategy etc.).  Aside from the clear overlap with Product Management responsibilties, the title is a misnomer: It’s really “project” focused and the “ownership” is really more about the stories and backlog, than the entire product.

In the first post, I suggested other titles for the role such as “Technical Product Manager”, “Backlog Manager” or “Project Owner”.

A comment from Rohan on that article suggested that the name “Product Owner” was too entrenched in the Agile community to have it “die” and so it would be better to try to contain the role vs. change it. At the time, I agreed with that thinking, and in my second post, focused more on the (re)definition of responsibilities as opposed to the title of the role.

Over the last several weeks, as I’ve thought about this more and done some additional reading, I decided that my original thrust — that both the name and responsibilities must change — was correct.

And with that, I’ve come to this post.

What does the “Product Owner” actually do?

The following are some descriptions of the responsibility of the Product Owner taken from Scrum focused sites on the Web.

The product owner is required to closely collaborate with the team on an ongoing basis and to guide and direct the team (e.g., by actively managing the product backlog, answering questions when they arise, providing feedback, and signing off work results.)
(Source: ScrumAlliance.org)

The Product Owner (typically someone from a Marketing role or a key user in internal development) prioritizes the Product Backlog.
(Source: Mountaingoat Software – a well known Scrum certification company)

The Product Owner represents the voice of the customer and is accountable for ensuring that the Team delivers value to the business. The Product Owner writes customer-centric items (typically user stories), prioritizes them, and adds them to the product backlog.
(Source: Wikipedia – Scrum Development)

Of course, there are lots of other sites to select from, but these three, all fairly reputable, generally agree on the focus of the “Product Owner”. The focus is on managing user stories, prioritization of those stories and assisting the Scrum team during sprints in answering questions etc. and ensuring the work done by the Scrum team is aligned with the business needs.  In short, it’s all about managing the backlog.

Welcome “Backlog Manager”

Whether it’s the product backlog or the sprint backlog; whether it’s prioritizing it, explaining it, pruning it etc, the focus of this role is to manage and oversee the backlog for the rest of the Scrum team and work with them as they implement it.

No, it’s not as sexy sounding as “Product Owner”. But as a ROLE, (as opposed to a title), it’s far more accurate and unambiguous. There’s a lot of work and responsibility (both explicit and implicit) related to managing the backlog. Work will not get done without someone actively working with “the business” to understand customer/market needs, and then working with the Scrum team to ensure those needs are met.

This is not a solitary role — the “Backlog Manager” is most likely part of a larger team — perhaps in Product Management (in an ISV) or a client facing team (in a consultancy).  Also keep in mind, that according to Scrum guidelines, there should be one “Backlog Manager” per Scrum team. i.e. for any sizable project or product – i.e. that has multiple Scrum teams — there will be multiple “Backlog Managers. In thinking about it, this makes a lot more sense than having multiple “Product Owners” — particularly when all the Scrum teams are working on a single product!

So, I’m sure there are detractors out there, but I’m casting a loud (and first vote), to change the name of “Product Owner” to “Backlog Manager”.  All those for? All those against?

Either way, I’d like to hear from you.

Saeed

Tweet this: Good-bye “Product Owner”, Hello “Backlog Manager” – http://wp.me/pXBON-2DB #prodmgmt #agile #scrum



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45 thoughts on “Good Bye “Product Owner”, Hello “Backlog Manager”

  1. Dan Callahan

    “Backlog Manager”, while not sexy, is a pretty good description of the role… especially given that (as others have written) you’d better be shipping before you’ve implemented all the content you think is needed. (This is especially true in industries where the game is massive scale-up.) So managing the list is critical.

    But what’s equally important is tearing up the list. There are all kinds of tools to help the team “remember” what’s on the list. But have you ever forgotten to implement a feature that was really important? Not likely. So I like to occasionally put the backlog aside and ask, “what are the top three features we need to implement right away?” Chances are, the responses will tell you what really needs to be done to get the product into the market.

    - Dan

    Reply
    1. Saeed Post author

      Dan

      I understand what you mean by “tearing up the list”, and I totally agree, but in my experience, that happens pretty much every time a release is planned.

      i.e. What was important but deferred from the last release doesn’t automatically get to the top of the list for the coming release. Those items are re-evaluated along with other new requirements based on new findings, market or business changes.

      Your question “What are the top 3 features we need to implement right away?” is a good one and one Scrum teams should be asking themselves every time they look at reprioritizing their requirements backlog.

      Saeed

      Reply
  2. Romuald restout

    Some roles are well defined by one task: a developer develops, a tester tests, but “Backlog manager” reduces the role to this one task. While managing the backlog certainly is a large part of the responsibilities, I believe “Backlog Manager” does not reflect the role of this individual.
    It has no more link to the product, whereas in most organizations, this individual will be attached to a product or a subset of the product and will be, along with the QA person, the individual with the deepest functional knowledge of the product.
    It becomes a generic role, like project manager. The main skill becomes the ability to manage a backlog and no more the knowledge of the content.
    Technical Product Manager, while not perfect, remains for me the role description that is the closest to what the role stands for.

    Reply
    1. Saeed Post author

      Romuald

      Thanks for the comment. I also do like Technical Product Manager, though there needs to be a distinction between the role and the potential titles of people who can fit that role.

      I think that a TPM (title) can be an excellent Backlog Manager (role). This distinction is important. In my first article, I did advocate (somewhat) for the TPM. At the end of that post I wrote:

      The “Product Owner” is dead. Long live the Technical Product Manager.

      But as I thought about it more, I realized that I was confusing the role and titles.

      Also, as I mentioned in the post WRT “Backlog Manager”, it’s not a tiny role.

      “Whether it’s the product backlog or the sprint backlog; whether it’s prioritizing it, explaining it, pruning it etc, the focus of this role is to manage and oversee the backlog for the rest of the Scrum team and work with them as they implement it.

      There’s a lot of work and responsibility (both explicit and implicit) related to managing the backlog. Work will not get done without someone actively working with “the business” to understand customer/market needs, and then working with the Scrum team to ensure those needs are met.”

      The responsibilities of the role are no different than what they are currently (in most cases), except that the title is different to better and more accurately reflect the actual responsibilities.

      Saeed

      Reply
  3. Stephan Haux

    Hi,

    well thought post as usual – however I do think there is an important part missing in your role description for the “Backlog Manager”: In order to manage the list well, this person does need a lot of acumen on the business side – aka the reasons the team is developing the product. When coming into the role as you describe it this knowledge is most likely existing, but over time focusing inward and managing the backlog the knowledge get outdated and even worse more and more biased towards the needs of the developers and the product team one is a member of. Also there is no way to have the market knowledge and the backlog manager being seperated into two people as the knowledge transfer is just inpractical.

    So the best is to make the product owner idea work in its entirety. How could this be done? And aren’t there many examples of the product owners overworked and even broken?

    When looking a bit closer to the variation of needs for the presence of the product owner over the course of a sprint there are times with more requests and timeconsuming consulting and there off-peak phases. Typically in the sprint planning the product owner is down right the bottle neck. All his user stories will need explaining, developers scope on basis of their understanding and coming back with more questions important for estimates. This heavy questioning continues for some time in the early sprint and naturally reduces to a fraction when the sprint matures. With acceptance meeting coming up the involvement of the product owner does peak again requiring his judgement whether the requirements are met.

    The success of a product owner does depend on his discipline to use the middle and end part of the sprint to plan for him facing outbound again. This is the time to investigate for new set of user stories and to interact with the market again. It does require a lot of self motivation to do this when you are a single product manager/owner. When you are part of a product management organization it is crucial to enage again with peer product managers and get some higher level thinking going to enhance your roadmap.

    Certainly this does not work if the product owner is member of many scrum teams – 3 have been the max I have seen working. In case the market facing product does require more than 3 scrum teams it has been good practice to have a senior product manager lead the overall product having technical product managers be the product owners for parts of it. Those little teams actually do work extremely well as the senior PM does cater for the unexpected requests from outside having technical product managers being able to focus on managing the fixed releases, splitting them into sprints and helping the scrum teams. Also they remain current in their wider field as being an active part of the overal product (management) team for the market facing entities.

    Reply
    1. Saeed Post author

      Stephan

      Thanks for the detailed comment. I think I will discuss your point further in my next post. I understand the concern but I don’t think it’s a big problem to address if the PM team is staffed appropriately and roles defined clearly. I’ve worked in several companies that use Scrum — none of them exactly the same :-). There are clear ways to keep the marketing knowledge flowing. I’ll talk about those in the upcoming post. Stay tuned.

      Saeed

      Reply
  4. Christian Almgren

    Its all very interesting. And partly you get to an interesting point where we touch the difference between Title and Role. For many they are the same. Truth be told, for many of us Product Managers we are today also working in the role of Product Owners. And I guess many of us at the same time guard our Title Product Manager as we dont want to be identified by the single role we are spending some of our time in.

    So we spend time in a role that to many the identify our whole existence with. And I at least are sometimes getting annoyed by that.

    Simply changing the role name for Product Owner will probably not fix that. But it will be step in the right direction to restrict the role name so that it reflects the role and dont try to take owner all roles the person might have.

    Reply
  5. AJ

    I was taught that the main role of the Product Owner was to develop and define the Product Vision. The Product Backlog is a byproduct of defining the Product Vision. By this reasoning “Backlog Manager” does not fit the role.

    Question: In your world / experience, who is responsible for the Product Vision since it obviously is not the Product Owner?

    Reply
    1. Saeed Post author

      AJ

      Thanks for the question, and it’s a key sticking point with how many Agilists define Product Owner. Given that Agile can be used for products, projects and application development, there are likely 3 answers depending on how people interpret what those 3 are. My focus is on products so I’ll answer your question from that perspective.

      In a software company — aside from the smallest startup where the founder(s) wear multiple hats — the “Product Vision” usually lies with an executive or is created by a Product Management team (PM, Dir, and/or VP) and then approved by an executive team of some sorts. Vision is fairly high level stuff though and often gets confused with the Product Roadmap. i.e. the vision is typically a general statement about some future objective of a company and/or product. The roadmap is a more concrete plan for the next few releases or next few years, showing plan capabilities.

      Remember that the vision, roadmap and strategy of a product must align themselves with the vision and strategy of the company. It’s not 100% top down, but if company executives decide that the company needs to focus on “international expansion” (for example) then that will definitely impact the vision/roadmap for products in that company, with localization, internationalization, and heavier focus on requirements from specific geographies. These must support the expansion strategy as well — i.e. channels, distributors, enablement etc.

      Getting those requirements almost certainly cannot be done by the same individual who is focused on tactical issues related to the current (and next) sprints, daily standups etc. Nor should it to be honest. But he/she/they should be aware and understand the vision and be able to communicate that and work with the Scrum team(s) to support it. So who is responsible for that product vision/roadmap? — the appropriate members of the PM team.

      There’s no reason that the Backlog Manager cannot be a member of the overall PM team. In fact, I think they should be. It helps with communication and understanding. The Backlog Manager is an interface between the Scrum team and others in the company.

      I hope that answers your question. Please let me know if it’s not clear or you have other questions.

      Saeed

      Reply
  6. Anders Kaplan

    As I see it, the key responsibility of the product owner is to ensure that her product has *integrity*.

    Integrity essentially means that the product has the right features and nothing else. So how do you know which are the right features? You need to have a strong vision of the product. And can you stand the pressure and keep the nonessential features out? Is your focus on the product all the time, or is it on the process? I guess that is the difference between a product owner and a backlog manager.

    That said, I must admit that I have not met many true product owners. Or, at least not many that actually call themselves product owners. In fact, the product owner is the role that is most difficult to staff, every time.

    But I work mainly with off-the-shelf software products. It could be quite different if your product is, say, an in-house system that is being developed and maintained continuously for a long time.

    Reply
    1. Saeed Post author

      Anders

      “Integrity” as you describe it – “the product has the right features” & keeping “the nonessential features out” — is important, but it exists regardless of what type of development methodology is in use.

      In fact, this is one key focus area for Product Management overall. i.e. when they work with Engineering on the product, that’s always a discussion that must had.

      For the “Backlog Manager” – integrity comes from working with the PM team, understanding the goals of the release and ensuring that is communicated well to Engineering. It’s not different than what PMs do all the time.

      Reply
  7. Andrej

    I tend to agree, because basically product owner doesn’t participate in product visioning alone. PO is an advocate between business world and development teams in 98% of cases that i saw.

    But he is not solely a manager of a backlog, since PO is enabled to make a certain priority/scope decisions (depends on a company) when product managers (or other stakeholders) are not in place and cannot help the team.

    So, as you can see it depends on what you want from that person. It’s a matter of empowerment.

    Reply
    1. Saeed Post author

      Andrej

      Backlog Management involves many things including decision making in the scope of an iteration. As part of a PM team, whether as a Technical PM or other title, in the role of the Backlog Manager, he/she communicates those decisions to the Scrum team. It’s an ongoing dialogue really.

      Saeed

      Reply
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