Should I Pursue Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) Certification?

CSPO CertificationAs mentioned in a previous post on the value of Scrum certifications, I became a Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) in May 2011, some thirteen years after I first engaged with Scrum. The reasons as to the delay in gaining certification were outlined in the previous article. But why CSPO certification? Why not Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)? CSM is, by far, the most popular entry certification available from the Scrum Alliance. This might be because, if you have only a nodding acquaintance with Scrum then it’s the one new role that you will almost certainly have come across. The Product Owner role is also the newest one  in Scrum. The ScrumMaster and Development Team member roles have always been there. To be honest, if I had applied for certification in the early years of the Scrum Alliance then I, too, would probably have opted for CSM. ScrumMaster was the role I played first when using Scrum, and is still the one I’ve played most in Scrum Teams I’ve been involved with. I have since added CSM to my CSPO and Certified Scrum Professional qualifications, by the way – so it is not because I have underrated the ScrumMaster role in any way.

So why was CSPO certification my first choice? My main reason for becoming a CSPO was that I had realized in the interim, when Agile entered the mainstream, that for Scrum to be sustainable over time the Product Owner role is probably the most important one to get right.

Is the CSPO the “One Wringable Neck”?

As far back as 2007 in his book The Enterprise and Scrum, Ken Schwaber had written about the Product Owner having the “one wringable neck” in the Scrum Team. I don’t think for one moment that he was suggesting that the Scrum Team as a whole was not collectively responsible for the success of their product. A team wins together and loses together, as any team sports coach worth his or her salt will tell you. Schwaber was, however, trying to draw attention to the special responsibilities of the Product Owner within the Scrum team. Let’s list them briefly.

Product Owner Responsibilities

• is responsible for the Return on Investment (ROI) and the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of the product
• has the job of ensuring the value of the delivered product is at maximum
• must optimize the value of the work performed by the Development Team
• manages the Product Backlog, and orders the items within it to-to-bottom
• must make the contents of the Product Backlog available, and in a way that they can easily understand
• makes decisions about when to release increments of the product to the customers
• is the only person who cancel a Sprint

Strategic Significance of the CSPO

Taken together, these responsibilities add up to some very serious strategic implications. The Scrum Guide puts it this way “For the Product Owner to succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions….No one is allowed to tell the Development Team to work from a different set of requirements (other than those represented in the Product Backlog – AOC), and the Development Team isn’t allowed to act on what anyone else says”.

Think about it. The Product Owner is the person who tells the Development Team what to do. It is through her management of the Product Backlog that she does this, in the main. The Product Owner spends a lot of time and effort working with the customers and other stakeholders to understand the relative value of the different requirements represented in the Product Backlog, and orders them accordingly. Of course, business value is not the only driver. Technical dependencies between different items – or stories if that is how the Product Backlog Items are represented – must be taken into account, too. Another factor to be considered is what the system will look like at the Sprint Review. A good Product Owner will always try to have the Team present a small and skinny version of the evolving system at the demo, and this might cause some lower value items to be promoted higher in the list than they might otherwise be.

Other roles, including ones outside the Scrum Team such as managers and customers, will of course have input, but the decisions about ranking the Product Backlog Items are in the end those of the Product Owner and the Product Owner alone. The importance of is that at the Sprint Planning meeting, the Product Owner will agree with the Development Team on a Sprint Goal – the target value to be achieved by the end of the iteration – and the Development Team will “snap off” from the top of the Backlog the number of items it forecasts it can develop in the timebox that will meet that goal.

A Combination of Traditional Roles

So clearly the Product Owner is a role that not only has something of the traditional Product Manager about it, but also a bit of Project Manager stuff, too. She or he cannot tell the Development Team how to do their work, nor can the Product Owner dictate how much work the developers should do (only the Development Team itself can do this in Scrum), but every time she reorders the Product Backlog she is telling them what needs to be done, because it is the top-ordered items that will be worked on next. And non-one else, no-one but no-one, can tell the Development Team to do anything differently. Now add to this the fact that the Product Owner is acting as a proxy for the customer during the Sprint, making herself available to the rest of the Team as needed, and you can see that the role sits right at the centre of the communication pathways and collaborative actions that have to happen for the product to succeed.

Maybe to say the Product Owner is the one wringable neck isn’t quite right. A better way of putting it might be that if any team or organization fails to grasp the importance of this role, if they don’t get it right, or if they make the wrong personalities Product Owners, then everyone’s neck is on the chopping block!

CSPO Certification Revisited

If certification is justified at all – and I believe it is – then certification of Product Owners is critical, not just for individuals who want to embellish their CVs, but more importantly, but for their employers whose organization’s future is, perhaps, being put on the line by their adopting Agile. One issue is that, like the CSM qualification, CSPO can only be gained by attending a certification course delivered by a Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer (CST). Except that the CST must themselves hold a CSPO certification – and only a minority of this relatively elite group are also CSPOs. It is hard to find appropriate courses. Fortunately, Learning Tree has teamed up with CSTs to provide exactly that service. Course 1814 Certified Scrum Product Owner is taking enrolments now. If you are a practising Product Owner who is not yet certified you should register for this 2-day course as soon as possible to get certified. If you are a Scrum Team member in another role, or are outside Scrum Teams but are impacted by their work in any way, then alert your Management to this opportunity to get your organisation’s Product Owners qualified. And don’t forget there are now nearly thirty Agile courses in the Learning Tree catalog to support the skills development of all your Agile professionals. This includes courses that provide CSM Certification, SAFe Agilist Certification, APMG’s Agile PM Practitioner Certification and prep you for PMI’s Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) exam.  We look forward to seeing you on course with us soon!

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