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The Three-Headed Product Owner

11/13/2007 by Plamen Balkanski

My company had a fairly good transition to Scrum. The team adapted well to the change and we all felt very lucky with how well things were going. Even so, when my colleague and I got back from our Certified ScrumMaster course, we were amazed by how easy it was to spot some little problems that had previously gone unnoticed. It was immediately obvious to us that, though we had a product owner, he was “missing” in many fundamental ways.

We weren’t the only ones who noticed this. A week after we returned from training, the team mentioned the same problem at our retrospective meeting. Clearly, our product owner, who was also the product manager, was not doing what the team needed and expected him to do. We decided that we needed a commitment from someone to really take on the product owner role. But who?

The product manager was not very interested in “driving” the team. This was evident from his recent acceptance of a number of features that clearly were not complete because of debug information popping up everywhere on the screen. We had a senior manager who was very supportive about Scrum but he was too busy to commit more than 25 percent of his time. We weren’t in a position to hire someone to do the job either. It soon became obvious that I had to do something myself. I volunteered to be product owner for the team.

I am a technical guy, not a salesman or marketing guru. I could commit to being there for the team, but wasn’t sure I had the point of view the team needed in a product owner. Luckily, we’ve been able to think outside a strict interpretation of Scrum and take three important steps that have helped me be the kind of Product Owner the team needs.

Step 1. Direct Meetings

Thanks to my recent ScrumMaster training and some reading I had done on my own, when I took over as product owner my understanding about Scrum had reached the level where I could look after the already prioritized and estimated product backlog and organize the review and planning meetings.

In the beginning, I felt a bit unprepared, but I dove right in anyway. Right after I took the position, I created a proposed list of product backlog items for the next sprint and presented them to the team the same day. I started calculating the completed story points and told the team that I would sit with them during the sprint and be ready to answer questions and execute acceptance tests when asked to do so.

The team never mentioned it, but I sensed that they might have been a bit worried about my ability to provide user feedback. Yet, at the very next retrospective meeting the team reported that the problem with the missing product owner had been pretty much solved.

Step 2. Form a Customer Team

We’re a product company that has always been driven by the sales team—they historically had specified the features that need to be developed based on the sales they wanted to complete. I come from a technical background. How could I provide feedback for the team that would come from a sales point of view? How could I be sure which features were the most valuable to our business? I couldn’t. Not by myself. Yet I was the product owner.

To give the project the correct perspective, we formed a customer team that includes a product manager who is good at spotting market trends and knows the competition, the senior manager I mentioned previously (who makes most of the decisions regarding features priority), a member of the pre-sales team who receives a lot of customer feedback, and me. We meet together periodically to answer any outstanding questions, to turn feature requests into user stories and add them to the backlog, and to assign and prioritise based on benefit, penalty, risk, and cost. I am the sole point of contact for the development team. When a question arises, I consult with at least some of the other customer team members to arrive at an answer the represents the customer team’s point of view.

Step 3. Create User Proxies

The customer team improved things for the development team. However, other departments began to feel as if they had no mechanism to provide us with their feedback. We were inundated with feature requests from our support and services departments and had quite a few from sales and marketing as well. We needed a way to deal with those and still make sure the team always worked on the highest priority items.

About that time I read about user proxies. They seemed to be the solution to our problem. Now, the other departments maintain prioritised lists of feature requests. Twice a month, they give us an updated list, indicating any changed priorities and added or dropped features. The customer team reviews the lists and balances these needs against the other items in the backlog before setting the final priorities.

Are Three Heads Better than One?

Having one product owner who is supported by a customer team and user proxies works for us. But let’s look at whether it satisfies the key components of an effective product owner.

  • A basic knowledge of how software is developed and deployed
    Check. Coming from technical background and knowing quite well all the technologies involved, I more than met this criterion.
  • An active stakeholder management
    We think we’re doing the best we can. Organizing the customer team meeting and collecting feedback from other departments might be the best you can do in a product company. Of course we would love to be able to receive feedback directly from the users, but right now it seems like we have some way to go before this could be achieved. 
  • A thorough understanding of customer needs
    Yes, for the most part. Understanding the needs of over three hundred customers is always going to be a challenge. We get feedback from every single department that communicates with clients. Since each of these departments interacts with many different client levels, from decision makers to end users, we should be getting a good picture of client needs. We also have data available from customer satisfaction surveys and training feedback that we use in customer team discussions. Most, if not all, of the customer team members also sit in the review meeting and take part in deciding if a story is done.

After reading a number of books on Scrum and attending ScrumMaster training, I wanted to do Scrum as close to the books as possible. However, in our real world situation, it wasn’t feasible to find a single product owner who satisfied all of the necessary criteria. After looking at the situation we took a three-pronged approach: 1) A product owner who could take part in the planning and review meetings, update the product backlog, and help the team to get their answers 2) A diverse customer team and 3) User proxies to help the team make informed decisions when prioritising the product backlog. Will it work for other teams? Who knows? Inspect and adapt!