Who's the real Product Owner?

Photo by Steven Zucker

Photo by Steven Zucker

What happens when we say a website that sells products is not a product itself?  It is, after all, a channel for selling products. Each product has its own product owner—someone who understands the underlying need, the business case, and how to market the product.  Those product owners are visionaries who deeply understand their products, so aren’t they the ones who should be working with the website Scrum teams?

Let’s imagine further.  If multiple Scrum teams—each with different product owners and focused on different products—are all delivering changes to the same channel, then who is making sure that the overall channel customer experience is good?  Is the channel still a channel?  If it is a product, what does that mean for the other product owners?  Perhaps the answer is that the channel IS a product—one that is designed to achieve the most value for the organization as a whole by serving the needs of customers and the multiple product owners.

It’s unlikely that the multiple product owners will all be happy.  If each product owner has his own goals, is it a zero-sum game?  The decisions made by one product owner for a given product can impact the results of other products present in the channel.  What then?  Which products are most important, and what does that mean?  Who can make such decisions?  Where would a channel-as-product product owner come from?  How can all of these product owners work together for the greater good of the organization and its customers?

I don’t know all of the answers.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

What Happens to a Team without a Clear Purpose?

Photo by Christian Guthier

Photo by Christian Guthier

Have you ever seen what happens to a development team when they lose their Product Owner?  That person who tells them the direction of the product and inspires them with a vision of the future?  When he/she is replaced by someone new who doesn’t understand the product deeply and have a vision for it?

We know that organizations that fall apart can almost always trace their demise to a deterioration of their core – People or Purpose

Like a plant that is lacking sunlight, the team’s behavior starts wilting—they’re falling into bad habits or complacency.  The team struggles.  Conflicts happen.  A mature development team needs a Product Owner to feed them goals through communication and collaboration.  Without a Product Owner, the team is lacking purpose or its purpose is unclear. 

Purpose: one of the three intrinsic motivators.

RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

What is your development team’s purpose?  Is it to deliver a product that fulfills its vision?  Does the team have its own motto or mission statement?  Where does it come from?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

The Product Owner role: Knowing and No-ing

Photo by Francesca Romana Correale

Photo by Francesca Romana Correale

The Product Owner has the most challenging role in Scrum: he needs to (1) know about the product, its market, its customers, its competitors, (2) have good communication skills, and (3) be empowered to say "no."  This role seems to be one of the hardest to fill appropriately and straddles the "IT vs. Business" divide that is all too present in many organizations.  It’s #3 that seems to be the trickiest because of the challenges of getting the right person to fill the role.

I’ve noticed a trend where organizations act as though anyone can come in, learn about the product, and therefore serve in the Product Owner role, so new people are hired or contracted to fill the position.  The truth is that products are suffering as a result of this thinking because there’s a lack of long-term vision or focus or accountability for results.  I believe that there are talented people who can come in and help define the product’s vision and do the necessary research to be successful to a point, but those people are probably consultants who can bring order to chaos and make sure to transition the Product Owner to the appropriate person before leaving.

The need for an empowered Product Owner typically means that the Product Owner must come from the "Business" side so he can make decisions and order the Product Backlog to maximize the value of the development team’s work.  According to Jeff Sutherland, co-founder of Scrum, “The Product Owner owns the business plan and is accountable for driving revenue (or whatever value your organization is producing).”  It’s incredibly difficult to find someone outside of an organization who can come in and do that, and IT people are generally not responsible for owning business plans or driving revenue. 

Customers and other stakeholders can (and will) ask for all sorts of features, but it is the Product Owner who decides what the product will ultimately include, upholding the Agile principle of simplicity (“the art of maximizing the amount 
of work not done”).  Strong scrum teams require strong Product Owners (not proxies), and the cost of having someone inadequately filling the role can add up quickly.  As Jeff Sutherland has found:

The majority of Scrum teams worldwide (and I survey multiple times every month in multiple countries) do not have good Product Backlog Items entering the sprint. In addition to cutting velocity at least in half (a minimum loss of about $75K per month per team), it leads to the customer not getting what they want.

Yikes!  Are your Product Owners knowledgeable, effective communicators, and empowered?  It might be time to see if there’s room for improvement.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

The Rightful Product Owner - Avoid Proxies

Photo by Loren Javier

Photo by Loren Javier

In many organizations transitioning to Agile, there are challenges when it comes to finding and training people to be Product Owners, particularly when the transition is more of an IT initiative than a company initiative.  Too often organizations rely on Product Owner proxies because the right people are overworked or distant from the team, and those barriers are not addressed.  A proxy person is not empowered, and the effects will be obvious with the development team and quite possibly the product itself.

Recently I've seen two examples at different organizations where the rightful Product Owner emerged.  The development team recognized the benefits of working with this person and started collaborating with him, even though he didn't have the PO job title or role assigned to him.  Team members looked to him for vision and context, included him in team meetings, and taught him about Agile and Scrum.  

What makes someone right for the Product Owner role?  He is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the development team.  He is focused on the end user and the goals of the business. He has a good working knowledge of the product. He has a vision for the future of the product and can make intelligent decisions about it.  In the two organizations I saw, individuals said they did not have enough time to be 100% dedicated Product Owners, and in both cases, those same individuals carved time in their calendars to spend with the development teams because they recognized the value in doing so.  Actions speak louder than words.

Anyone could be given the title of "king," but not everyone can pull the sword from the stone--anyone can learn about a product and its vision, but not everyone can be the empowered voice of development.  The Product Owner is not a requirements engineer.  The Product Owner is not concerned about writing perfect user stories.  The Product Owner is not a proxy.

Failure to have the right Product Owner will slow the progress of the product and adds risk to delivering what the customer wants.  Long live the rightful Product Owner!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.