The role of the Product Owner (PO) in agile is central to the overall success of the team. According to the Scrum Guide, “the Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work by the Development Team.” To accomplish this, POs work with stakeholders and the team to develop the product vision, strategy, and execution priority. The role is easily misunderstood if the person filling it is not well trained and coached.
Embracing the agile and Scrum mindsets
On numerous occasions, a newly identified PO attends a certification class and then tries to tackle the daunting task of actually being the PO. When speaking with organizational agile leaders, we see several issues related to this:
- Belief that the PO is the be-all and end-all for product direction.
- POs who go it alone by setting vision, strategy, and priority by themselves.
- Loss of control over the work request and prioritization process.
- Growing belief that the voice of the stakeholders is just a suggestion.
There are few reasons why these misguided mindsets crop up in agile leadership teams.
The growing need to improve PO understanding of agile and Scrum
These and other PO misconceptions happen most frequently when superficial knowledge of agile or Scrum is combined with limited situational experience. We also see these issues when a PO has no mentor or well-versed PO community where they can share experiences. It also happens when the organization itself is new to Scrum and does not have enough overall expertise to execute correctly.
Figure 1. Poorly organized requests to the team result in conflict and chaos. This negatively impacts the amount of high-priority work completed.
The PO’s role exists to manage through one of the most frequent problems for Scrum teams: too much demand and rapidly changing priorities. Figure 1 shows how organizations can get overwhelmed by conflicting needs. Teams lacking a stable, active PO can get stuck in the flow of requests. Stakeholders can complicate matters when they directly engage team members to push their personal agendas. Team members don’t know how to react to these drop-in requests, and chaos reigns. These can be symptoms indicating a disconnect between PO and stakeholder priorities.
In this whirlwind model, chaos and churn are normal:
- Projects last longer than intended.
- Results do not meet expectations.
- Customers are dissatisfied.
- Practices are inconsistent.
A key PO role is to work with stakeholders to understand all stakeholder needs and priorities and negotiate a strategy everyone can support. In our experience, this negotiation can be tough. A typical pattern emerges where stakeholders dump all their requests on the PO and ask, “When will all work be done?” Frequently, stakeholders will comment that they only care about their own priority—the priority of the others is “not their problem.”
Tackling stakeholder conflicts: a key PO role
This dynamic of conflicting stakeholder needs is the situation for which the PO is most needed. There is only one work team, and only so much capacity to go around. The team needs to be shielded from this chaos. The PO’s role is to remind others of the greater good and negotiate a model that appropriately shares the team’s capacity. If the PO cannot come to a priority agreement with the stakeholders, no one’s work gets done, and every customer suffers.
Figure 2. In an ideal work request process, the PO will collect stakeholder requests, negotiate priorities, and pass the filtered/altered work items to the team in a way that balances everyone’s needs.
Figure 2 shows an ideal PO work request process. The PO collects input and works with all stakeholder groups, negotiating to prioritize the team’s work and ensure everyone’s needs are met over time. It is vital that the PO work cooperatively with stakeholders to ensure full transparency in the prioritization of work. The sprint review is a terrific place to accomplish this.
When priorities are well organized, communicated, and executed, it benefits everyone:
- Projects are delivered on time
- Customer expectations are met and often exceeded
- Customers are satisfied with the results for the price paid
- Practices are consistent
- The team’s approach to work is completely transparent
- Customer loyalty improves
POs have a difficult job. People in this role can feel as though they are on an island with nowhere to turn.
Facilitating PO success through community and communication
Our path to success combines training, individual coaching, and the establishment of a mentored community of practice. When sponsoring conversations among a collective of POs, we find that the group members are often facing similar situations and experiences. By facilitating organized conversations, we help build a PO community where they can identify and share potential solutions. POs jointly learn the art of vision, strategy, priority, negotiation, and facilitation. These primary skills are amplified in a group setting, and strong bonds are built that will help them overcome new situational obstacles in the future—teaming to be great POs!
The PO role is tough, and POs face difficult situations daily. Learning how to deal with those challenges successfully is a team sport!
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