Product Owners for CRM Projects


The perfect product owner

The role of the product owner is to set the goals for the CRM system, each release and each sprint. The product owner also describes all the requirements and acceptance criteria. He or she must be available to participate in every sprint event and have a senior role in the organisation such that they command a level of authority so that they alone can make prioritisation decisions. They have a responsibility to accept requirements when they are done, identify bugs and new stories.

The perfect product owner is a former UN secretary general, cooks 30-minute brownies in 20 minutes, can decide what to eat before seeing the menu, and is an expert cat herder.

The real product owner

The role of the product owner has varied across my agile projects. Some product owners have been former business analysts learning to work with user stories and a product backlog. Other product owners are senior department heads comfortable with sponsoring the project and providing their vision for the desired business outcomes.

What I've found is that the best product owners are:

  1. Outcome-oriented: able to clearly describe the desired business outcomes impacted by the CRM system, able to set sprint goals that inspire the CRM team
  2. Well-respected: able to make prioritisation decisions without deferring to someone else, and holds significant influence over the intended CRM users.
  3. Narrator: able to describe the business requirements and acceptance criteria in sufficient detail that the features can be developed, tested and accepted.
  4. Entrusted: has integrity and is trusted by other senior stakeholders to balance competing priorities.
  5. Readily-available: can attend all the sprint ceremonies, the daily standups, and is frequently available for questions regarding stories and features.

Can just one person be the product owner?

Admittedly that's a tall set of requirements for a great product owner. And I've never worked with a single product owner who meets all those requirements.

I've found that there is often a person who fulfils the requirements of being outcome-oriented, well-respected and entrusted and a delegate or proxy product owner who fulfils the requirements of being a good narrator and readily-available.

This combination of product owner and proxy product owner has worked well in several of my projects:

  • Peter Cook for Keith Ison at Guy's & St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust. We worked closely with Peter, a senior medical physics engineer, on a day-to-day basis and presented our progress to Keith at the end of each sprint.
  • Steve Pomush for Carrie Leonard and Bryan Smith at American Homes 4 Rent. Steve was the VP of IT with the tricky job of balancing competing priorities within a single backlog from a number of different departments who used a single CRM platform for different needs. Usually, he directed us to concentrate on Carrie's asset management requirements for a sprint or two and then back to Bryan's property management department.
  • Victor Lee for Beth Cozza at Advantage Sales & Marketing. Beth was the Director of Account Services and a great product owner with day-to-day support and specialist technical expertise from Victor, Director of IT.
  • Ben Roles for Debbie Cragg at Premier Medical Group. Debbie was the Operations Director and acted as a hands-on CRM executive sponsor while delegating day-to-day details to business analyst, Ben Roles.

The Scrum framework requires that the product owner is one person, not a committee. Having more than one product owner certainly can be harder to manage, but I've found it much more practical to have two people working together as product owner than relying on a product owner superhero that doesn't exist.

Do product owners need to be CRM or agile experts?

I've never worked on a CRM project where the product owner was a CRM expert. I've performed a few turnaround projects where the client's team already know CRM but they're rarely CRM experts.

Similarly, I've never worked on a CRM project where the product owner had ever been a product owner before. Most are agile newbies and heard about Scrum for the first time through our pre-sales engagement.

I recommend providing the whole project team with a workshop to introduce them to Customer Agility so that they are aware of the Scrum principles and practices before the project starts. But there's no need for your CRM product owner to become certified as a Professional Scrum Product Owner unless they want to launch a career in software product management.

Are you the perfect CRM product owner, or have you worked with one? Would love to hear about your product owner experiences in the comments.