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What Are the Roles & Responsibilities of a SAFe® Product Owner?

  • Scaling Agile
Created on :
June 21, 2022
Updated on :
June 22, 2023

In Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), the Product Owner (PO) is a critical member of the Agile team whose primary responsibility is to ensure that the team delivers maximum value by aligning their backlog with the needs of their customers and stakeholders. As an extended part of the Product Management function, the PO is the team’s primary advocate for their customers and provides a vital link to the business and technology strategy. This allows the team to effectively balance the needs of various stakeholders while continuously improving their solutions. Typically, each PO represents their customers and the business within a specific domain, working alongside a Product Manager to ensure that the product strategy and implementation stay connected throughout the value stream. As the voice of the customer, the PO carries out a range of responsibilities, including building key relationships, synthesizing information from different sources, maintaining business alignment within the team’s backlog, and communicating effectively with a range of audiences, all with a focus on delivering and learning quickly.

Connecting with the Customer

Ensuring that Agile Release Trains (ARTs) consistently create relevant and well-crafted solutions is an ongoing process. As customer preferences and business requirements evolve constantly, it is crucial for product strategy, design, and implementation to adapt accordingly. The Product Owner (PO) collaborates closely with Product Management to adopt a customer-focused approach and employs design thinking techniques to guide the ART in delivering desirable, viable, feasible, and sustainable solutions. This collaboration allows the ART to remain in tune with both customer and business needs, leading to valuable and enduring solutions.

  • Collaborate with Product Management to gain insights into customer needs.
  • Understand the customer persona and deeply understand their needs and expectations.
  • Identify and maintain close relationships with non-customer stakeholders.
  • Comprehend the market segment, domain, and competitive landscape.
  • Develop a comprehensive product solution for the customer.

Contributing to the Vision and Roadmap

Product Managers concentrate on the solutions and experiences an Agile Release Train (ART) should deliver, while Product Owners possess a practical understanding of the deliverable solutions and experiences. This perspective is essential in shaping the vision and roadmaps that guide solution implementation. By combining the ideal with the achievable, Product Owners infuse realism into the process, helping to steer the ART toward success. Their practical insight allows for the establishment of realistic, attainable goals, and directs the ART to deliver valuable and significant solutions.

  • Share knowledge of market dynamics and customer needs based on feedback from incremental releases and market research.
  • Offer a detailed implementation perspective on customer needs.
  • Provide feedback on solution alternatives based on a thorough understanding of implementation insights.
  • Ensure the team has a clear understanding of the vision and roadmap during both PI Planning and PI Execution.
  • Actively participate in ART Backlog refinement.
    • Contribute to determining the Cost of Delay for features.
    • Collaborate closely with System Architects, Product Management, and Business Owners to estimate feature sizes for Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) purposes.
    • Support Product Management in identifying Feature Benefits and Acceptance Criteria.
    • Assist in identifying features that fit well within one PI or the ART.

Managing and Prioritizing the Team Backlog

As a Product Owner (PO), it is your responsibility to maintain a well-organized and technically sound team backlog, collaborating closely with Product Management, System Architecture, and other stakeholders. The team backlog includes user stories, enablers, and defects, and it must always stay current and align with the evolving needs of customers and stakeholders. To preserve the backlog’s integrity, you will carry out several essential tasks, such as:

  • Lead the identification and refinement of user stories.
  • Mentor and coach the team in splitting user stories vertically.
  • Assist the team in creating small user stories that can be completed within one iteration.
  • Ensure timely refinement of team backlog items.
  • Conduct regular team backlog refinement meetings.
  • Accept user stories after validating the acceptance criteria and Definition of Done (DoD).
  • Support the architectural runway.
  • Use economic decision-making to prioritize the team backlog.
  • Apply set-based solution alternatives when uncertainties are high.

Supporting the Team in Delivering Value

Agile teams generate value by selecting tasks from the backlog, executing iterations, implementing stories, integrating and testing changes, and delivering solution increments. These value-creating activities primarily occur during iteration execution. As the primary customer representative, the Product Owner (PO) plays a vital role in guiding the team towards delivering high-value outputs and meeting iteration goals. This support allows the team and the Agile Release Train (ART) to continuously deliver value.

  • Ensure user stories are understood and developed with the correct intent.
  • Balance stakeholder perspectives to maximize value through trade-offs and expectation management.
  • Support built-in quality by helping the team move towards a better Definition of Done and providing room for improvements.
  • Actively participate in team events to ensure a clear understanding of the solution vision, roadmap, and customer needs.
  • Assist the team in resolving requirement-level dependencies with other teams.
  • Ensure ART events, such as PO Sync and System Demo, foster alignment to deliver business value at the ART level.
  • Mentor and coach the agile team on customer centricity, helping them understand customer needs and expectations.
  • Actively resolve conflicting requirements and ambiguities by collaborating with Product Management and other team Product Owners.
  • Be aware of priority adjustments made in other agile teams and their impacts on your team.
  • Apply systems thinking to ensure alignment with the solution roadmap.

Gathering and Applying Feedback

The Product Owner’s (PO) main responsibility is to ensure that the Agile team delivers the highest possible value. To accomplish this, the team must understand what value means. Gaining this understanding requires receiving regular feedback from customers and stakeholders throughout the entire delivery process, not just at the end. The PO plays a vital role in establishing these feedback loops, which continually enhance the value stream. By collecting both quantitative and qualitative feedback, the PO gains a comprehensive understanding of which solutions provide value and which ones do not. This insight helps the team focus on delivering valuable solutions and continuously improving the value they offer.

  • In Iteration Review, ensure the right stakeholders are present, and feedback is discussed, understood, and acted upon.
  • In System Demo, confirm that the overall system understanding aligns with stakeholders and gather feedback on completed features.
  • Obtain one-on-one feedback from stakeholders, particularly when a stakeholder is absent from a review or when early feedback is valuable. The PO works individually with stakeholders to collect feedback.
  • Validate the Benefit Hypothesis of features. Although Product Management may require validation of feature benefits, the PO is expected to play an active role in validating the benefit hypotheses developed by the team.
  • Share feedback with teams and the Agile Release Train (ART) by explaining how feedback influences the
  • Team Backlog in team events. Report product and customer trends, highlighting value and business insights.
  • Support solution design by enabling early integration and validation of usable solutions.
  • Collaborate closely with the team and system architect to prioritize the team backlog, facilitating early validation of solution design.

Supporting PI Planning

The PI Planning event is a crucial activity within the SAFe framework. While responsibilities related to PI Planning are covered in other areas, it is important to treat it as a distinct group since it serves as a critical forum for collaboration, alignment, and planning across the organization. The Product Owner plays a vital role in ensuring alignment and developing a realistic and achievable PI plan.

  • Prepare teams for the PI Planning meeting by ensuring the Agile team is familiar with the features to be planned during the event.
  • Confirm that startup stories for expected features are created and the team has conducted technical research. Conduct story identification and refinement workshops during the Innovation and Planning Iteration.
  • Assist the team in estimating the initial set of user stories for the PI Planning meeting.
  • During the PI Planning meeting, help the team better understand user stories.
  • Collaborate with other Product Owners and Product Management during the PI Planning meeting to clarify requirements and boundaries for Agile teams.
  • Assist the team in forming PI objectives using business outcome language.
  • Sequence user stories during PI Planning to identify when a feature can be completed.
  • Help identify and resolve dependencies.
  • Work with Business Owners to facilitate the assignment of business value to PI objectives.

In conclusion, the Product Owner plays a pivotal role in the Agile team by ensuring that the team delivers maximum value while maintaining alignment with customer and stakeholder needs. Through collaboration, communication, and continuous improvement, the PO helps the team navigate the complexities of product development in an ever-evolving market. By embracing their responsibilities and fostering a customer-centric mindset, the PO enables the team to create valuable, effective, and sustainable solutions. As the bridge between customers, stakeholders, and the Agile team, the Product Owner remains a crucial driver of success in SAFe.

To further enhance their effectiveness, Product Owners (PO) can consider the following recommendations to build and refine their skills:

  • Pursue SAFe Product Owner/Product Manager (POPM) Course to deepen their knowledge of Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and role.
  • Study Article on Product Owner Role at ScaledAgileFrameork 
  • Develop strong communication and negotiation skills to effectively manage stakeholder expectations and convey the team’s progress and challenges.
  • Stay current with industry trends, emerging technologies, and customer preferences to anticipate and adapt to changing market dynamics.
  • Engage in networking opportunities and join Agile communities to learn from the experiences and insights of other Product Owners and Agile professionals.
  • Hone their problem-solving and analytical skills to assess the impact of different solutions better and make informed decisions about Team Backlog prioritization.
  • Build empathy and understanding of customer needs by regularly interacting with end-users and conducting user research.
  • Learn from failure and continuously improve by reflecting on past experiences and iterating on processes, tools, and strategies.
  • By investing in personal and professional development, Product Owners can strengthen their abilities and better support their Agile teams in delivering outstanding value to customers and stakeholders.

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