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Getting Your Priorities in Order: An Agile Product Owner Overview

Last December, my coworker Zach Chandler wrote a great blog post on the core principles of Agile Project Management and how to think about them in relation to web development at Stanford. In Zach's "Be Careful What You Ask For" section he briefly outlines the challenges for the Product Owner (primary decision maker) in Agile projects: balancing the power to change project direction with budget and time constraints. In this post, I'd like to go into the role of the Product Owner in a bit more depth.

Your Friendly Product Owner

One of the key players in Agile Project Management is the Product Owner. The Product Owner holds the vision of the product on behalf of the client and represents the interests of the client to the development team. The Product Owner is tasked with prioritizing the backlog (to-do items) for the project to make sure that the stakeholders are getting the most value for their dollar. For Web Services, I often wear the Product Owner hat, working closely with stakeholders to build great websites.

Prioritizing Features to Get the Most Value for Your Money

I like to think of it this way: at the start of a project, we often have some sense for what we'd like from a new website. Then, as the project moves along, we think of other features that would be really valuable as well. However, we start to have a list that is no longer achievable within our budget and timeline. For the most part, every new feature that is added mid-stream will likely bump some other feature we had initially planned off the list of features that will be completed by the end of the project.

So, the idea is to maximize the value of your dollar. Is that new feature going to serve way more people or be way more useful than something else you were planning on? Then move it to the top of the backlog! If not, move it lower in the backlog and consider it for a Version 2 of your project.

Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell

Check out this great video by Henrik Kniberg.


Thanks for this article Linnea, I think it points out some errors in my previous post, and I hope it will be useful to underline them here. I think I was conflating the "project lead" (i.e. the client) with the Product Owner, primarily because most of our outsourced projects lack a true Product Owner, so far as I can tell. Prioritization is done by the client. This might also be why I was so focused on risk, because of the inherent risk in this situation. It might be worth polling some of our known-good vendors about what they do about situations like these.

I think a good way to think about that problem is that the Scrum Master, Project Manager or Lead Developer, whoever is helping steer the ship on any project should be guiding the client through this process of prioritization and pointing out potential danger zones. I think it's okay for the client to be the Product Owner and steer, but that means they'll need more coaching: someone is going to have to hold up the map and point at it a lot. Risk? Yep! Thumbs up on polling.

This is a fantastic video! Does a great job illustrating things and explaining some of the agile terminology that I only had a simple understanding of before. Thanks!