Like Donkey, riding in the back of the garlic coach on the way to Far Far Away in the movie Shrek 2, too many product owners are taking a back seat in Scrum by limiting themselves to asking, “Are we there yet?” Little wonder. Accustomed to decades of “over-the-wall” requirements handoffs and long delays before seeing a working system, many product owners are disenchanted and ill-prepared when faced with the immediate, persistent, and unrelenting demands of a Scrum team. What was “Far Far Away” is Now. Here. Today. Product owners aren’t prepared.
When acting as ScrumMaster, I’ve found that I spend at least 50 percent of my time working with the product owner and the myriad of stakeholders the product owner represents. When you introduce Scrum to a new team, find out who the business sponsor is and make sure she understands the pivotal role that the product owner plays. The product owner is ultimately accountable for maximizing the return on investment (ROI) for the project. To succeed, the product owner must establish and communicate the project vision — the elusive “it” that constitutes real value to a real customer. Then the product owner must nurture that vision by frequently inspecting the working features produced by the team and providing timely feedback. When reality deviates from the plan, the product owner works to adjust the plan to match reality while keeping the team focused on the vision and holding together the coalition of stakeholders.
The days of handing over a requirements document and then sitting back to wait for the delivery team to finish are over. Product owners don’t belong in the back seat. They must be immediately available to the team. My rule of thumb for a product owner is that they must ensure that 80 percent of the Scrum team’s questions are answered within five minutes of the question being raised. To achieve this level of responsiveness, the product owner really must be engaged and must engage subject matter experts to be available to the team when necessary. This isn’t a role to be taken lightly.
Get ready product owners because, like Donkey, you definitely aren’t in the swamp anymore.
Editor's Note: For further reading on being an effective product owner, don't miss Roman Pichler's 2007 article.