The product owners’ role in outsourcing is often a subject of controversy. Some vendors (often adhering to agile Scrum methodology) insist that a client company hires a dedicated product owner to oversee the project, control milestones, and delivery, and verify everything done by the outsourced dedicated team. There’s also a belief that any outsourcing engagement can do quite well without a product owner as long as the outsourcing provider can put an excellent PM to a project team.
In a bid to give you useful outsourcing tips, we will now explore when it makes sense to outsource without a product owner — and when hiring one is absolutely a must.
Who is a product owner?
Before we proceed, let’s define who a product owner (PO) is and what this role envisions. In a very simplistic sense, a product owner is a key stakeholder for the project. Now, let’s break this down into PO’s core responsibilities:
1. Establishing a clear product vision
As easy as it may seem, acting as a visionary for the product requires an in-depth understanding of the current market situation, the latest trends and the existing competition, to ultimately meet the end users’ needs. The product owner keeps focussing on a product and problems it’s meant to solve and makes sure the development follows the steps and standards outlined in a product backlog.
2. Providing a clear direction for the team
Having established a clear vision, the PO now communicates it to the development team. A backlog with a list of features in the order of their development priority acts as the main tool for achieving this goal. The PO doesn’t assign tasks to members of an outsourced development team (there’s a team lead for this); yet, the job role requires writing specs, developing wireframes, doing acceptance testing, preparing sales and marketing content, and more.
3. Overseeing milestones and delivery
As said above, the PO doesn’t assign the tasks; instead, he or she ensures the development process goes along all the stages defined in a backlog and matches the specified standards. Ultimately, the PO ensures that the end product doesn’t deviate from the original idea and has all the features listed in the backlog. According to Scrum methodology, the product owner may change product requirements along the way, but only between the development sprints, to avoid disrupting the team’s focus. In Scrum, the timeline of the project is typically beyond the scope of the PO and is established by the team.
As you can see, the PO responsibilities are both outbound (focused on end user) and inbound (focused on the development team). Obviously, they require a versatile individual with vast and multi-faceted experience in both marketing and technologies. Such people are scarce — not just because of the notorious talent gap, but also because such a combination of skills is quite rare. People either have no technical background or too much of it to meet the role requirements. “How to outsource without a product owner?” is one of those burning questions that outsourcing clients frequently ask. Sometimes, a person on the client’s team may assume the PO role and oversee the development process.
When to outsource without a Product Owner?
Let’s now assume a different view of the PO role. Some vendors oppose an idea of hiring a dedicated PO: there are just too many vital questions for one person to solve and issues to tackle. Prioritizing which bugs to fix and which features to implement should be done by the team, according to this standpoint. Acting like devs cannot build with customer in mind and have to be told what to do invalides them, believe the opponents. By contrast, they don’t think one person can be competent enough to make well-weighed decisions. A self-driven and well-coordinated team, they argue, can deliver great products without any PO interference.
In our opinion, they may be partially right. Some projects are quite doable without a dedicated product owner. So how do you know the project in question falls under this category? Whether or not you need to hire a dedicated product owner will depend, in our opinion, on two factors:
1. Outsourcing price model
A fixed price model (FP), also known as a Lump Sum model, can be an indication your project doesn’t require a PO role. FP projects have a clear scope and an established set of requirements. As a rule, they are so predictable, clients and teams can quickly agree on milestones and deadlines. Any change in or addition to the product features will require additional payments.
A Time and Materials model (T&M) is also frequently applied in software development outsourcing for projects requiring long term application support and development. Within this model, the time, scope, client requirements, and the amount of work are the main price formation factors.
In both models, the vendor is fully responsible for the delivery.
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2. Project Type
While some software development projects are complex, others are pretty basic. A WordPress site development, for example, typically has a fixed set of requirements, predictable timeframe, and scope of future maintenance.
Here, the project owners role will be unnecessary and redundant, since experienced development team can handle these projects without a PO, as long as the outsourcing company can assign a good PM to act as a mediator between a team and a client. A project owner can only complicate an otherwise predictable process, which could ultimately downgrade the end product.
When is it essential to involve a Product Owner in the outsourced project?
If you’re up to building something by far less predictable and infinitely more complex, hiring a PO who can be held accountable for the outcome of your project is a must, in our opinion. Large-Scale and robust projects involving AI, ML, Data analytics, or enterprise IoT require extra coordination or development efforts. The development teams working on these projects are often numerous and diverse, and a project owner will need to ensure they have a clear understanding of the product’s functionality and features. Admittedly, large-scale projects tend to deviate from the initial idea, and someone has to steer them back in the right direction.
If you’re still not sure whether or not you need a PO, consider your collaboration model. If you have a dedicated development team hosted by your outsourcing provider, you do need a dedicated product owner to oversee the development. Choosing this type of a collaboration model implies your project has no clearly established timeframe, and the requirements may change along the way. You do need someone to ensure the development process flows in the right direction.
Both opponents and advocates of the PO role have coherent and well-versed arguments. We do suggest, though, that you consider your project specifics before you make your final choice. Leaving your developers to their own devices when you’re building an enterprise-grade IoT system could result in a project going rogue. Similarly, imposing a PO on a well-synced team working on a product website may severely hamper their progress. If you’re still hesitant – talk to your outsourcing provider and rely on their experience and expertise.