Product Owner as a Servant-Leader
When asked, “Who is the Servant-Leader in Scrum?”, the most common answer is: the Scrum Master. This answer does indeed follow what the Scrum Guide says (Nov 2017 edition): “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team”. Is it only the Scrum Master who is or can be a servant-leader? I would say that servant-leadership, as an important management principle in a Scrum environment, is not limited to the Scrum Master role alone. I would say that each role in the Scrum Team is a servant-leader towards someone, within or beyond the Scrum Team. Here, I will explore the Product Owner as a servant-leader.
I have been thinking about it for a long time and I found Gunther Verheyen being in agreement with me. He gave some great pointers and suggested reading the latest book by Roman Pichler, “How to lead in product management” (2020). In this book, Roman explores in depth the different skills required to be a great product owner. Besides the typical product and domain knowledge, he describes many coaching and conversational techniques that are part of servant-leadership.
The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the essay “The servant as leader” (1970). In that essay, Greenleaf states:
The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.
A Product Owner, having no hierarchical powers, also ‘serves first’:
1. Product Owner serves the customers and users by delivering the highest value features/product.
2. Product Owner serves the organization and sponsors by aligning with the company’s overarching goals and mission.
3. Product Owner serves the Development Team by clearly expressing Product Backlog items for the team to focus on delivering the most valuable outcomes
4. Product Owner serves the Scrum Master by helping her/him in understanding the business challenges and needs
5. Product Owner serves the business and product management parts of the organization by making decisions based upon the proven, empirical data.
Greenleaf also states:
“… to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous… “
This also applies to the Product Owner:
1. Product Owner drives all work from a product vision to inspire the Development Team to work as a coherent unit.
2. Product Owner serves the customers and users by answering their needs and solving their problems
3. Product Owner serves the sponsor and the wider organization by aligning everyone around the product vision and strategy.
4. Product Owner helps the Scrum Master in the implementation of empiricism by trying out new experiments.
5. Product Owner inspires and align everyone with what could be the future by challenging the status quo.
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”
1. The primary measure of success for Product Owners is in their ability to tackle user needs and problems.
2. Product Owners help all involved in discovering and understanding the needs, goals, and solutions that the product implements.
3. Product Owners focus on value creation for the customers, sponsors, and organization.
4. Product Owners focus on the success of the Development Team by helping them understand how the work done by them adds value and affects users and customers
5. Product Owner helps the Scrum Master by coaching/mentoring the Development Team for developing the right product.
Are you a Product Owner? Have you already felt like a servant-leader serving the Development Team, Scrum Master, users, customers, organizations in one way or another?
Along with existing titles like a visionary, entrepreneur, sponsor, and so on, you may like to add the title of “Servant-Leader” to describe what you do.
Enjoy your expanded role…Happy Servant-Leadership