This obviously is an answer to the question that is more likely to cloud the issue that clears it up. Some see the roles as interchangeable, and some believe that are opposites.
Before you can hope to understand the roles, you first need to understand the differences in approach between Scrum and Agile.
Scrum vs Agile
The Agile method is an iterative approach – in other words, it delivers the project in incremental phases that are called sprints.
The point is that the development process is not sequential but instead a cycle of work that is monitored and adapted throughout.
The product development mimics the subsequent operations of other models, with analysis of requirements, design, completion, etc. but these are monitored throughout and adapted where necessary.
This ensures that the project is always being steered in the correct direction.
In this method, the role of the business analyst is fundamental to understanding how the project is evolving.
Scrum is a kind of agile approach – in the sense that it works in short iterative processes too.
The scrum comes from rugby where there is a team of people all pushing together in a single direction.
The team is cross-functional and self-organising – there is no team leader, only a scrum master who facilitates the needs of the team but does not direct the team.
The person with an overview of the whole project is the product owner – but the product owner is not part of the working team but acts as executive/ customer – who receives updates on the project and from this reflection builds the focus of the next sprint.
A business analyst is a person hired to analyse the business of an organisation and keep that business running smoothly and efficiently.
A business analyst needs to be a little separate from the production process and be able to ask and answer objective questions about direction and approach.
These answers are then fed back to the project team, and the team are asked to use the insight to reflect and adapt their approach.
A business analyst needs to be many things within an Agile project methodology.
The business analyst also needs to be an architect of the project requirements, an analyst of systems and outcomes, a consultant on management approaches and processes and knowledgeable of the technical specifications of the product or services being developed.
Part of this role could be that of a product owner, where the business analyst is the representative that the project team presents progress to and therefore helps in reflection and development of the project.
A business analyst acts as an investigator and a fact checker.
The role is objective – as they try to reconcile what the customer wants with what the team are producing. They are looking to find gaps and analyse and trace impact.
A product owner is a person within an organisation who builds the business case and then monitors progress to ensure that the product roadmap and business goals stay aligned and are efficiently delivered.
They work at a distance but within the organisation – they will work with the project team throughout the lifetime of the project but will be unlikely to be involved in day to day Scrums.
Sometimes the product owner is also the scrum master, but the individual will change approach dependent upon which role they are undertaking at any one time.
If you want to read more about the differences between a scrum master and a product owner, visit one of our previous articles.
The product owner is primarily responsible for making sure the solution provides what the customer is requesting and this is in line with the vision of the business and for the outcome.
The role requires the individual leverage their knowledge of the company as a whole, the customer requirement, the broader industry, as well as data gathered.
It is an amalgamation of many roles, such as business representative, business analyst and project manager. The product owner, for those who are purists in the world of Scrum, is the voice of the customer.
A product owner is a subjective role. They are a designer of the overall project, and they are acting as the subjective eyes of the customer.
Is the team delivering what the customer wants?
Well, this is directed by the opinion of the product owner, based on analysis of data and information provided by the team.
Product Owner vs Business Analyst
There are undoubtedly shared skills and shared responsibilities between the role of product owner and business analyst.
Both roles are there to ensure that the iterative processes of the sprint or the scrum are directing work towards the desired outcome.
Both roles require a vision of the whole project and analytical skills to help with reflection on the progress being made.
Both roles need the skills of eliciting, analysing, and communicating findings; prioritising outcomes, analysing the needs of the stakeholder, facilitating the work of the team and seeking feedback from the consumer.
However, the roles are opposite, albeit complimentary. It is difficult for a product owner to ask objective questions and find the answer to these when they are also asked to be the eyes of the customer.
It is also likely that the product owner will have managerial responsibility for people in the team that means a presentation of data and findings needs to be balanced against the motivation and efficiency of the team.
They may be holding meetings with the team, have training responsibilities and present the vision to these people. Therefore, they are subjectively embroiled with the project.
In this situation, the business analyst can complement the product owner by providing the data and findings that can shape the vision.
A business analyst can facilitate a conversation about what is being done and what should be done differently using the findings provided.
However, they are unlikely to have the managerial or leadership role within the team to direct change.
Here, the part of the business analyst is supported by the product owner.
To be more specific, a business analyst could help to refine backlogs and identify gaps – while the product owner would convey these expectations to the team and help design the next iteration of work.
A likely working scenario would be that an agile business analyst would challenge the product owner to define the problems that are being faced in the project.
The business analyst would then offer insights on the answers given that can add value to the responsibilities of the product owner.
Another scenario could be that the business analyst writes the user stories that the product owner then uses to test the experience of the customer.
Another possibility is that the business analyst will understand the technicalities of the project, while the product owner will have a better knowledge of the experience required for the project outcome.
One is experiential, and the other is technical.
One is focused entirely on objective analysis, and the other is more subjectively involved in the iterations of the project.
One is likely to work altogether separate from the work of the team, whereas the other is likely to be designing the overall workflow of the team – working as overall project manager.
However, in reality, it is likely that a single individual could function in both roles and the viewpoint derived from each role could compliment their performance.
It is desirable for someone to have an overview of the technical requirements of a project and an overview of the user experience of the outcome.
Yes, one is an objective mindset that is focused on finding the gaps and the efficiencies and the other a more subjective experience of the progression of the project.
However, to be able to bring both to a leadership role would allow a 360 view of the project in a single individual.
In most organisations, the line between the business analyst and product owner are blurred.
It is likely that a job specification will offer a hybrid of both roles.
More important than if you need a separate analyst to project manager is how well the team works as a whole. A high performing team will have someone who is managing and leading the project who will be receptive to the objective analysis of specialists within the team.
If all understand the roles and responsibilities of each role then the skills needed for a business analyst and product owner can be covered by the team.
In short, you do not need two executive-level overview roles of the same project if the team is trusted to deliver on some of the oppositional skills within the two approaches.
Overall, the answer to what’s the difference between the product owner vs business analysts is, that it all depends on how you view the roles and whether you value the separation of the skills.
It could be that you believe having two separate people is dynamic and creative.
It might be that you feel a single person can better carry the vision of the outcome. It all comes down to preference.
For more information, visit our article on the role of Product Manager to better understand the difference.