Agile Methods Advisory

Product Owner: client-side or vendor-side?

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One of the most important roles in Scrum is the Product Owner. At the same time, one of the major issues in Scrum is who should fulfill this role: the client or the vendor? This blog describes some pros and cons on the matter.

The responsibilities of the Product Owner include, among many others, representing the customer, delivering value, managing stakeholders and making functional decisions. According to Jeff Sutherland an adequate Product Owner needs to meet at least these requirements:

– Knowledgeability
Needs to have all (or most of) the knowledge about the product/project/etc.

– Availability
Needs to be available to the team to do the day-to-day work.

– Decidability
Needs mandate to make decisions.

– Accountability
Is responsible for creating value.

To be a good Product Owner, one does not only need knowledge about the product/project, but also various skills around the Scrum process. A Product Owner assigned by the client rarely has these skills, whereas a one of the vendor is often trained as a Certified Scrum Product Owner. The certification by itself is not per definition a guarantee for excellent skills, however, it does imply that the person has been trained in these skills.

A big advantage of a Product Owner on vendor-side over one on client-side is the availability of this person. A Product Owner needs to prepare stories, plan sprints, continuously (re)prioritize the product backlog, manage stakeholders, be available to the team to do day-to-day work and answer questions, etc. It’s a full-time job. A Product Owner provided by the client is usually someone high in the organization, who already has a full-time job and cannot spend all his time on the project and team. This often results in this person not being available in time to the team, which results in delays and thus lower velocity and lower value delivery.

Big problems occur when the Product Owner has no mandate to make decisions. He/she needs to be able to make decisions on the spot when, for instance, answering questions from the team. When provided by the vendor, this person needs to get this mandate from the client, which often is not possible.

A vendor-side Product Owner can usually contribute a wide knowledgebase of the market. Since he can rely on a network of knowledge it’s easier to create an integral and modern solution. However, a downside of having the Product Owner at the vendor-side is that this person needs to, as the name suggests, “own the product”. This knowledge is usually present at the client-side and gathered over a long period of time, which means that at vendor-side all this knowledge needs to be learned somehow. Also, as per definition, the Product Owner is responsible for delivering value (or at least determining which functionality has most value for the least cost), which would often be the client.

The Product Owner needs to know, represent and have short lines with all stakeholders. Although this is not impossible for a vendor-side one, it’s usually easier for a client-side one.

The above described advantages and disadvantages are far from exhaustive, however, they do show a pattern. Having a client-side Product Owner has big advantages over having a vendor-side one on some areas, however, vice versa this is also true on other areas. There is not one best option. Whether it’s better to have a Product Owner provided by the vendor or by the client is totally dependent on the situation and the agreements that are made. Of course, it’s also possible (maybe even likely) that neither a client-side nor a vendor-side one is perfectly fit for the situation. In this case you have some options. For example, choose the option that fits best and make good agreements with the client about how to minimize the risks, or think about sharing the role between 2 people, which itself requires solid agreements about how to share the role.

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