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The Product Owner as Steward

October 31, 2016

In the Professional Scrum Product Owner course, we teach that high performing Product Owners are entrepreneurial. They not only act with the business in mind, they have the authority to make important decisions. What should we do now versus later? What choices give us the best return on investment? What’s the ROI if we do this feature later instead of now?

Not only do they have authority to decide the sequence of the work, entrepreneurial Product Owners should be responsible for how much money is invested in their product. Even influencing the portfolio decisions of the relative investment in their product in the context of the overall business strategy.

To make those decisions of when to implement which features, Don Reinertsen in his book The Principles of Product Development Flow recommends that these decisions be made in the context of a common measure. Specifically, what is the impact on lifecycle profit (for for-profit companies, anyway) of deciding to implement this feature now instead of that one?

Wait…lifecycle? You mean, the entire business life of the product? How long is that? For most of the Product Owners I work with, their products or systems last many years, even decades. Meanwhile, most Product Owners fulfill their role for a few years at most before moving on to other things.

So in that context, the Product Owner is really a steward of the product. Making decisions today that will impact not only the rest of the lifecycle of the product but of future Product Owners as well.

In fact, most Product Owners are not the first. They are living with decisions made by Product Owners past, sometimes seriously bad decisions that those Product Owners are no longer dealing with…but their successors are!

This concept of Product Steward applies not only to lifecycle profit but to other decisions as well. Should we release now even though we know we have taken important shortcuts in development? Should we mortgage our future selves and future Product Stewards with the technical debt we have incurred to “just release it”? Even though we have the best of intentions to fix it later…do we really believe we’ll ever get to it? Since when do we have spare time to repay technical debt when all those new feature requests are calling to us?

So next time you’re faced with those hard decisions, Product Stewards, think about your future and those future Product Stewards that will have to deal with the choices you make today. A steward of the product will do what’s right for the long run. After all, you owe it to yourself.

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