Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
The Product Owner (PO) is a member of the Agile Team responsible for defining Stories and prioritizing the Team Backlog to streamline the execution of program priorities while maintaining the conceptual and technical integrity of the Features or components for the team.
The PO has a significant role in quality control and is the only team member empowered to accept stories as done. For most enterprises moving to Agile, this is a new and critical role, typically translating into a full-time job, requiring one PO to support each Agile team (or, at most, two teams).
The PO is the member of the Agile team who serves as the customer proxy responsible for working with Product Management and other stakeholders—including other POs—to define and prioritize stories in the team backlog. This allows the Solution to effectively address program priorities (features and Enablers) while maintaining technical integrity. Ideally, the PO is collocated with the rest of the team, where they typically share management, incentives, and culture. But the PO also attends the relevant Product Management meetings for planning and Program Backlog/Vision refinement.
The PO fulfills the following duties:
Preparation and Participation in PI Planning
- As a member of the extended Product Management team, the PO is heavily involved in program backlog refinement and prep for Program Increment (PI) planning and also plays a significant role in the planning event itself. Before the planning event, the PO updates the team backlog and typically reviews and contributes to the program vision, Roadmap, and content presentations.
- During the event, the PO is involved with story definition, providing the clarifications necessary to assist the team with their story estimates and sequencing. The PO also drafts the team’s specific objectives for the upcoming PI.
- Maintaining the team backlog – With input from System Architect/Engineering and other stakeholders, the PO has the primary responsibility for building, editing, and maintaining the team backlog. Consisting mostly of user stories, it also includes defects and enablers. Backlog items are prioritized based on user value, time, and other team dependencies determined in the PI planning meeting and refined during the PI.
- Iteration Planning – The PO reviews and reprioritizes the backlog as part of the prep work for Iteration Planning, including coordination of dependencies with other POs. During the iteration planning meeting, the PO is the primary source for story detail and priorities and has the responsibility of accepting the final iteration plan.
- Just-in-time story elaboration – Most backlog items are elaborated into user stories for implementation. This may happen before the iteration, during iteration planning, or during the iteration. While any team member can write stories and acceptance criteria, the PO has the primary responsibility for maintaining the flow. It’s usually good to have approximately two iterations worth of stories ready in the team backlog at all times. More would create a queue, while less might inhibit flow.
- Apply Behavior-Driven Development (BDD) – POs collaborate with their team to detail stories with acceptance criteria and examples in the form of acceptance tests. See the BDD article for more details.
- Accepting stories – The PO is the only team member who can accept stories as done. This includes validating that the story meets acceptance criteria, that it has the appropriate, persistent acceptance tests, and that it otherwise complies with its Definition of Done (DoD). In so doing, the PO also assures a level of quality, focusing primarily on fitness for use.
- Understand enabler work – While POs are not expected to drive technological decisions, they are supposed to understand the scope of the upcoming enabler work and collaborate with System and Solution Architect/Engineering to assist with decision-making and sequencing of the critical technological infrastructures that will host the new business functionality. This can often be best accomplished by establishing a capacity allocation, as described in the Team Backlog article.
- Participate in team demo and retrospective – POs collaborate with their team and any other stakeholders in the team demo. They also participate in the Iteration Retrospective, where the teams gather to improve their processes and are active in the Agile Release Train’s (ART’s) Inspect and Adapt (I&A) workshop.
- Iterations and Agile teams serve a larger purpose; the frequent, reliable, and continuous release of value-added solutions. During each PI, the PO coordinates dependencies with other POs. This often occurs in weekly PO sync meetings (see the PI article for more information).
- The PO also has an instrumental role in producing the System Demo for program and Value Stream stakeholders.
Inspect and Adapt
- Teams address their larger impediments in the I&A workshop. There, the PO works across teams to define and implement improvement stories that will increase the velocity and quality of the program.
- The PI system demo is part of the I&A workshop. The PO has an instrumental role in producing the PI system demo for program stakeholders.
- To ensure that they will be able to show the most critical aspects of the solution to the stakeholders, POs also participate in the preparation of the PI system demo.
Product management in SAFe is a collaboration by Product Management and POs and as such they share content authority ARTs. They must collectively understand their customers by leveraging Design Thinking tools such as Personas, Empathy Maps, Customer Journey Maps, Story Maps, and other tools that support Continuous Exploration. Figure 1 provides some guidance on how to delineate the responsibilities across these roles. Depending on the solution’s size and architecture (and to some degree the organization’s culture), authority for these items can become more decentralized, shifting them to the right (see SAFe Principle #9, Decentralize Decision-Making).
Fan-Out Model of Product Manager, Product Owner, and Agile Teams
Successful development is, in part, a game of numbers in the Enterprise. Without the right number of people in the right roles, bottlenecks will severely limit velocity. Therefore, the number of Product Managers, POs, and Agile teams must be roughly in balance to steer the ART. Otherwise, the whole system will spend much of its time waiting for definition, clarification, and acceptance. Instead, SAFe recommends a fan-out model, as illustrated in Figure 2.
Each Product Manager can usually support up to four POs, each of whom can be responsible for the backlog of one or two Agile teams.
Learn More Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.  Larman, Craig, and Bas Vodde. Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Large, Multisite, and Offshore Product Development with Large-Scale Scrum. Addison-Wesley, 2010.
Last update: 3 February 2020