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Going Nowhere Fast

Scrum without a Product Owner

13 August 2007

Jim York
FoxHedge LTD

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.


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Geir Amsjo, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 8/14/2007 8:35:35 AM
Just a comment on the issue of responsiveness of the PO. I just recently evaluated a Scrum project facing a lot of problems with real engagement from the team. The Scrum team was really laid back both during planning and under the Sprint. It was obvious that the team wasn't really taking full ownership to the Product/Sprint.
It took only some interviews to spot the main problem: To be absolute certain that the team got fast response to their questions, they had moved the PO to sit together with the team. The PO thought this was a great situation and took far too much responsibility for the Sprint. He not only answered questions, he also imposed a lot of changes during the 30 day Sprint. He didn't really see the necessity for a proper, estimated Product Backlog either, because he was quite happy with his position during the Sprint.

No wonder the team got laid back! So beware, the PO might be too engaged!
Well, this project now is on track again. The solution was a) to instruct the PO to create a Product Backlog and estimate it together with the team. And b) after some discussions he also understood how to behave a bit less eager to get his own ideas through in his communication with the team. But he still has his working space located close to the team.

Jim York, CST,CEC,CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/20/2007 10:44:02 AM
Geir, you give an good example of a PO who didn't understand the PO role. This lack of understanding is often the crux of the problem. In many cases, the development group is "imposing" Scrum and not ensuring understanding and buy-in from the Product Owner. The scenario you describe reminds me of the "us versus them" mentality that pervades so many organizations. The lack of accountability in the sprint is a tell-tale sign. Until everyone in the organization understands that they are all on the same side, the organization will not realize the full benefits of Scrum. Unfortunately, many Scrum implementations do not rise above the "us versus them" dysfunctional behavior perpetuated by organizational structures that separate IT and business.
Andy Murthar, CSM, 8/21/2007 5:45:20 AM
Jim: i agree with your comment, always working on\with that one, and struggling to still operate scrum. but then, nobody said it was going to be easy :)
Adam Wernig, CSM,CSPO, 9/6/2007 11:55:22 PM
The us vs. them mentality is very much alive at my company despite all the people going around saying we have to get rid of it. However, I think the real issue we have is a result of our PO's lacking experience when it comes to gathering requirements thus not communicating the what, why, and value their stories to IT very well making it difficult for them to estimate and plan the items.
Jim York, CST,CEC,CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 9/7/2007 10:34:43 AM
Adam, the Certified Product Owner class aims to help new (and old) Product Owners learn how to more effectively play their role. Companies that neglect Product Owner education and coaching in Scrum implementations do so at their own peril and risk turning Agile into just another way to blame the customer for failure.
Adam Wernig, CSM,CSPO, 9/11/2007 2:59:33 PM
Thanks Jim. I will take that advice and look into it. Hopefully with time it will get better.
Nicholas Cancelliere, CSM, 9/13/2007 4:35:34 PM
I cannot stress how much impact to the success of the project product owner vision has. In some cases the difference is night and day. When a product owner provides a clear vision the team has something to shoot for, the goal is there for them to hit and they're motivated. Teams without vision tend to be demoralized, have the "this is just a job for me" attitude, and flounder. You probably will see high turnover because the lack of challenge, general frustration, and no clear direction leaves team members wanting. Unless you have that vision it is harder to determine if your actions are taking you into the right direction. It is an important piece of a Scrum project. I wish more product owners were proactive in this and realized that it's not just about prioritizing ROI, but about getting people to buy-in to your vision and want to go there with you.
Derrek Wood, CSM, 9/19/2007 8:52:28 AM
I'd have to agree. The other side of the PO problem, wrt lack of vision, is a very small backlog being generated. If the team has only 5 stories to choose from, and can usually complete 4.5 (for example) then the team tends toward a lower motivation for ownership of that iterations work. They also tend to get pushed to accept that 5th story, since 4 stories isn't enough work for them. Not giving the team a chance to negotiate over a well formed PL is not an effective way to remove the "us v. them" attitudes.

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