Chief product owner: 4 tips to be first among equals

Chief product owner? I – Saloua – bet you are confused. The whole idea behind agile was less hierarchy and bureaucracy? When I first heard about this role, I thought as well NO WAY! Not for me… I’m not cut out to be a boss. I imagined the chief of an Indian tribe deciding if someone would be either the new tribe member or tonight’s dinner 🙂 . Having said that, only stupid people never change their minds… and although I can be stupid sometimes (ask my husband), this time I wasn’t. A few months down the road, I wouldn’t say it’s a walk in the park but it’s definitely worth the hike.


First things first, what is the heck is a CPO? Opinions differ on the matter and there’s no official recognition of the role in the scrum bible. Still, literature converges towards a definition where a chief product owner is responsible for the overall product. He/she guides the product owners, and facilitates overall product decisions. It’s a role meant only for complex products or domains with multiple squads depending on each other and delivering towards the same purpose. For example, we have 5 squads working to migrate from one main system to another. Treating them like 100% autonomous and self-steering is not realistic. Enter: the CPO!

Now, putting the theory aside, here are my main learnings acting as a CPO last few months.

  1. You’re no boss: chief is only in the name. So if you want this role to satisfy your ego… find something else. A CPO isn’t a super product owner or a product owner on top of the other ones. You’re there to serve the other PO’s when they can’t resolve a priority issue among themselves. By the way, in our tribe we decided to drop “chief” and replaced it by “central,” to stress the no-boss thingy.
  2. A CPO doesn’t equal PO. A CPO has an overall product or domain roadmap but doesn’t have a squad pulling stories from that overall roadmap. The CPO product roadmap is merely an aggregation of the sub product roadmaps from the different squads within the domain.
  3. It’s no fulltime job: a CPO role is something you do on the side. It’s is almost overhead and we don’t want too much of that 😉 . People should still be able to deliver value with their squad. You’re merely there to keep focus on the bigger picture of the product or domain.
  4. CPO has mandate for his or her domain. This is the most crucial element of the role. It’s with this mandate that the CPO can set priorities for the domain. A CPO is not just a facilitator for decision making on priority, when push comes to shove, the CPO is the decision maker.

In my humble opinion – this role can be effective in any company. I came to enjoy it a lot. It challenges me every time to decide whether I need to step in as a CPO or leave the room for the PO’s. These decisions, which are made in a split second, play a key role in getting a CPO to be an empowering yet decision making role instead of a dictating, hierarchical one. And as a cherry on the pie, it gives me – as PO who always felt a bit lonely in my role – a team of PO’s to spar with, because as Marijke said, we all want to belong somewhere

Cheers, Saloua

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7 thoughts on “Chief product owner: 4 tips to be first among equals

  1. Hi Eveline,

    I will try to list below the first thoughts that come to my mind for the main difference:
    – An integrator is meant to put items on different backlogs of different teams and integrate those. The CPO does not place anything on any backlog.
    – The CPO’s main objective is to set the right priority for a certain domain across multiple teams. These teams can be working on multiple projects/programs where multiple integrators are involved.
    – The CPO does not coordinate work across squads.
    – Within our organisation, a CPO is a “primus inter pares” role [so one of the PO’s take as well the extra CPO role next to his/her PO work] so the CPO is actually part of the teams. The integrator is someone who is on top of the actual squads.

    If i think of more, i will post them

    I hope it helps

    1. Hi Maarten,
      No we do not have a chapter that is for PO’s and therefore no chapter lead. PO’as are within the chapters where their expertise lies

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