Teaming to be a Great Product Owner

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 of the Development Team.  In order to accomplish this, they work with Stakeholders and the team to develop of the product vision, strategy, and execution priority. It can also be a very misunderstood role if not well trained and coached. 

I have seen numerous occasions in which a newly identified Product Owner attends a certification class and then tries to tackle the daunting task of actually being the PO. At Vaco Agile, some of the issues we see are:

  • A belief that the PO is the be all end all for product direction
  • They go it alone by setting vision, strategy, and priority by themselves
  • Lose control of the Work Request and Prioritization process
  • Develops a belief that the voice of the Stakeholders is just a suggestion
  • PO understanding of Agile & Scrum needs improvement

These and other PO misconceptions happen most frequently when lacking the depth of knowledge of Agile or Scrum combined with poor situational experience. We also see these issues when a PO is not mentored or part of a well-versed PO Community in which 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.

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 the intense nature of how organizations can get overwhelmed by conflicting needs. Teams lacking a stable active Product Owner can get stuck in the flow of requests.  Stakeholders can complicate matters when they directly engage team members to get their personal agendas worked. In this situation, chaos can reign as team members don’t know how to react to these drop-in requests. These can be symptoms indicating Product Owner and Stakeholder priority disconnect!

In this whirlwind model chaos and churn are resulting in:

  • Projects lasting longer than intended​
  • The result does not meet expectations​
  • Customer dissatisfaction with the results​
  • Inconsistent practices

A key Product Owners role is to work with Stakeholders to understand all stakeholder needs and priorities; to negotiate to a strategy all can support. In every client situation, I have witnessed, this negotiation can be tough. A typical pattern emerges for Stakeholders to dump all requests on the PO and ask, “when will all work be done?” In my experience, I cannot tell you how often stakeholders will comment that they only care about their own priority – the priority of the others is “Not their problem.” This dynamic of conflicting stakeholder needs creates the situation in which the PO needs to be most active. There is only one work team, only so much capacity to go around. The team needs to be shielded from this crazy making. In this case, the PO role is to remind and reinforce the greater good and negotiate a model that appropriately shares the team’s capacity. If the Product Owner, in conjunction with the Stakeholders cannot come to priority agreement – no one’s work gets done, and every customer suffers.

In Figure 2 – we show how an ideal PO work request process should work.  The PO collects input and works with all stakeholder groups through negotiation to prioritize the team’s work so that over time – everyone’s needs are met.  It is vital the PO work collectively with Stakeholders to ensure full transparency of work, the Sprint Review is a terrific place to accomplish this.

Additionally, when priorities are well organized, communicated, and executed, the following benefits occur:

  • On-time project delivery​
  • Customer expectations met and often exceeded​
  • Satisfaction with the results for the price paid
  • Consistent practices​
  • Complete transparency to the work process
  • Loyal customers

At Vaco, in our collective experience, we recognize the difficulty PO’s face. People in this role can feel as though they are on an island with nowhere to turn.  Our path to success is a combination of training coupled with individual coaching and the establishment of a Mentored Community of Practice (CoP). By sponsoring conversations among a collective of PO’s, we find that the group is often facing similar situations and experiences. By facilitating organized conversations, a PO community is built to identify and share potential solutions. PO’s jointly learn the art of vision, strategy, priority, negotiation, and facilitation. These primary skills are best amplified in a group setting; strong bonds are built to help overcome new situational obstacles in the future. 

Teaming to be a Great Product Owner!The PO role is tough and faced with difficult situations daily. Learning how to deal with those successfully is a team sport!