Product managers often joke that they have all the responsibility but no authority. Therefore, successful product managers learn to lead through influence. The creators of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, had the foresight to grant special powers to the product owner so they would not suffer a similar fate as the product manager. In Scrum, the product owner has explicit authority to prioritize the product backlog and thus determine the order of the work to be done.
Nevertheless, some product owners find their authority compromised with executives overriding their decisions. The team may call foul that the executives are not respecting the Scrum process. In these situations, before looking outward for blame, teams should first look inward.
If the product owner is not the true expert regarding customer needs and if in fact the executives know more about the customer and the market place, then the product owner’s influence and ultimately his or her authority will be compromised. This is because prioritizing a list of user stories is relatively easy. The true challenge is building consensus around that prioritization, especially the stories that are not going to get done in the upcoming sprint or release.
To have authority, the product owner needs to facilitate trade-off discussions, bring market evidence to the table, tie the prioritization into the company’s strategic objectives, and socialize prioritization discussion. These are a necessary but often overlooked part of the product owner role.
At the end of the day, positional authority will only get you so far. This not only applies to the role of the product owner but also holds true for managers, vice presidents, and even CEOs. Explicit authority can make your job easier. If you want people to follow you, you need to lead through influence.