October 30, 2020

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SAFe Product Owner vs Scrum Product Owner -They Are Not the Same


The SAFe Product Owner and the Scrum Product Owner are the same in name only. The Scrum Product Owner is the sole person responsible to maximise the value of the product. He/she owns the Product Backlog which lists all requirements for the product.

The SAFe Product Owner, however, owns the Team Backlog, listing all requirements for a team. On top of that, the Product Owner only serves a maximum of two teams. A SAFe Product Owner doesn’t have full responsibility for a Product. This responsibility lies with the SAFe Product Manager.

The Scrum Product Owner doesn’t exist as one role within SAFe. At best, it is a combination of the SAFe Product Owner and SAFe Product Manager.

For a detailed comparison of the two roles, you can read the remainder of the article. I hope it will bring clarity on this topic so next time you see a job description for a Product Owner (in a SAFe or Scrum environment), you know what to expect.

A SAFe Product Owner is responsible for the Team Backlog. A Scrum Product Owner is responsible for the Product Backlog. Both SAFe’s Team Backlog and Scrum’s Product Backlog are the set of requirements from which the Agile Team/Development Team pull their work. In both environments, it’s the Product Owner who has the final say over the (Team/Product) backlog. On the surface, the backlogs seem similar.

But the Scrum Product Backlog is more than a team backlog:

“The Product Backlog is an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product. It is the single source of requirements for any changes to be made to the product.” — Scrum Guide 2017

With that, the Scrum Product Owner is responsible for the ordering of everything that needs to happen for a product. Even if multiple teams work on the same product:

“Multiple Scrum Teams often work together on the same product. One Product Backlog is used to describe the upcoming work on the product. A Product Backlog attribute that groups items may then be employed.” — Scrum Guide 2017

The Scrum Guide clearly states that if two or more teams work on the same product, they all work from the same Product Backlog. The SAFe Team Backlog, however, is for one team only.

Now that it is clear that the Product Backlog and the Team Backlog are different, I will drill down further to establish the product responsibility of the Product Owner. Is the sum of all Team Backlogs for which the SAFe Product Owner is responsible the same as the Scrum Product Backlog?

We can find the answer in how many teams a Product Owner can serve. A Scrum Product Owner can work with two or more teams. A SAFe Product Owner, however, serves a maximum of two teams:

“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).” — SAFe Product Owner

The consequence of all of this is that the sum of the SAFe Product Owners’ Team Backlogs only has the same purpose as the Product Backlog if a SAFe environment has up to two teams per product. If you then consider that SAFe environments often have (far) more than 10 teams, it is plain to see that in many environments more than two teams work on the same product.

As a result, multiple SAFe Product Owners serve one product. This means that:

  • Team Backlogs of an individual Product Owner don’t have all the requirements for one product;
  • SAFe Product Owners don’t have a final say on what needs to happen for a certain Product.

A SAFe Product Owner has less authority than a Scrum Product Owner.

I just discussed that the SAFe Product Owner doesn’t own his/her product, unlike the Scrum Product Owner. But who IS responsible for what needs to happen to a product within SAFe?

The logical choice would be the SAFe Product Manager. A SAFe Product Manager defines features and owns the vision and roadmap. The SAFe Product Manager also owns the Program Backlog. This Program Backlog comes closest to Scrum’s Product Backlog, although there’s an obvious difference between a program and a product. A SAFe Product Manager works with two to four SAFe Product Owners and as a result, has an overall view.

All of this confirms that the SAFe Product Manager is the true owner of the product. However, the SAFe Product Manager doesn’t have direct contact with the Agile Teams and as a result, doesn’t have the same responsibilities as a Scrum Product Owner.

The Scrum Product Owner has responsibilities that largely are a combination of the SAFe Product Owner and the SAFe Product Manager.

While I discussed the SAFe role and the Scrum role are very different, there also are similarities.

The SAFe Product Owner is a member of the team, just like the Scrum Product Owner. Both guide the team to work on the items that are most important next. Both roles are responsible for maximizing the value of the work from the team. They also both suggest a goal for the next iteration, which helps to inspect and adapt during and after the iteration.

The Product Owner manages and has the end-responsibility for the (Team/Product) backlog. Both in SAFe and Scrum does the Product Owner participate in the (Iteration/Sprint) Planning, Retrospective and Review in a similar way.

SAFe needs many words to describe the Product Owner role. The Scrum Guide is intentionally non-descriptive to focus on the framework itself and allow different kinds of applications.

Here are examples of SAFe’s descriptiveness:

  • SAFe mentions how a Product Owner must work together with all kinds of stakeholders, like Product Management, Customers and Business Owners.
  • It also elaborates that the SAFe Product Owner attends relevant Product Management meetings for planning and vision refinement.
  • It discusses that SAFe Product Owners best can be co-located.
  • The SAFe Product Owner does just-in-time story-elaboration to allow proper flow.

The SAFe Product Owner is very much involved in program backlog refinement. A SAFe Program Backlog has the upcoming Features for a solution. A Scrum Product Backlog focuses on a product.

He/she also helps to prepare and participates in the Program Increment planning. The SAFe Product Owner ensures that the team knows what to do for the next Program Increment.

The SAFe Product Owner serves as a customer proxy, working with Product Management and other stakeholders. The Scrum Guide doesn’t discuss this at all. The Product Owner role can fit all kinds of people, from customer to Product Manager to developer (to name a few).

A SAFe Product Owner applies Behavior-Driven Development. A Scrum Product Owner does not have this responsibility as it is for the Development Team to determine how they build an increment.

The SAFe Product Owner also has several tasks in the SAFe environment that logically are not in the Scrum Guide. She/he:

  • coordinates dependencies with other SAFe Product Owners during weekly sync meetings;
  • plays an important role in the ‘System Demo’;
  • engages in the Program Increment inspect and adapt events.

The SAFe Product Owner and the Scrum Product Owner have a similar role within their teams. They help the teams to focus on the most valuable work. They also both participate in the Iteration/Scrum events.

However, the Scrum Product Owner has the authority over the product using the Product Backlog while a SAFe Product Owner determines what a certain team does by using the Team Backlog.

The Scrum Product Owner role doesn’t have a SAFe equivalent. Instead, the role is more or less split between the SAFe Product Owner and the SAFe Product Manager.

So next time you see a job description for a Product Owner, don’t assume that you know what the role entails. Instead, ensure yourself if it is for a Scrum environment or a SAFe environment.

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