You are a Scrum Product Owner and observe the following:
- You are not able to deliver value to your end-users?
- Don’t have enough time for backlog refinement
- The team is generally unhappy and it comes out in open during Sprint retrospectives
- You feel the development team is not estimating the user storied right
- There is too much of stakeholder influence in the middle of a Sprint?
- The team is not able to deliver the Sprint goal very often
The feeling is not uncommon to have as there are many product owners (new or experienced) who face this dilemma now and then. What could be the reason? We all have read the Scrum guide then where is the gap? As they say, Scrum is easy to understand but difficult to master.
Let’s first have a look at the what Scrum guide says about a Product Owner:
The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from the work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.
The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. The Product Owner may do all Product Backlog management related activities by themself, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.
The Product Owner is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee in the Product Backlog, but those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority must address the Product Owner.
For the Product Owner to succeed, the entire organization must respect his or her decisions. The Product Owner’s decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog. No one can force the Development Team to work from a different set of requirements.
– The Scrum Guide, version November 2017
According to Product Management guru Roman Pichler:
“This definition sounds rather harmless until we consider its implications. It requires the product owner to lead product discovery, to help identify and describe requirements, and to ensure that the product backlog is ready for the next sprint planning meeting. It also means that the product owner has to engage in product planning, visioning, and product road mapping, decides what goes into a release, carries out release planning, provides feedback to the team and reviews work results, and manages customers, users, and other stakeholders.”
In various big corporate organizations, the Product Owner role as it is defined in the Scrum Guide, isn’t (yet) how it works in those big companies. Hence, this is exactly the reason why the Scrum.Org has come up with the preferred and misunderstood stances of the Product Owner. To help you and your company get a better understanding of the Product Owner (or Agile Product Manager) role. The Stances will help you to quickly identify good/preferred and bad/misunderstood patterns of Product Ownership so that you can course-correct and make the situation better in the future.
The misunderstood Stances of the Product Owner
There are six key misunderstood stances of a product owner discovered in a lot of organizations.
The Clerk, The Story Writer, The Line Manager, The Project Manager, The Subject Matter Expert, and the Gatekeeper.
The Clerk: The Clerk is also referred to as the admin, secretary, waiter, yes man, or order taker. Servant leadership is important for every organization; however, it is about servant leadership, not about being a servant. This type of Product Owner never says NO to the stakeholders and acts as a mediator between them and the development team. We might have come across such product owners who don’t have any power rather they just take orders and execute them. We can see the following patterns when a product owner has taken a Clerk’s stance:
- Backlogs are big and messy
- There is no interaction with the external stakeholders
- Tries to please everyone
- Product is not based on a vision; you’re just delivering what everybody wants
What to do to move away from this stance – Stop saying Yes to everything. Create your vision/ strategy and start discussing them with the key stakeholders, ask for their feedback and inputs.
The Story Writer or Scribe: The Story Writer is also referred to as the scribe, secretary, business analyst, technical writer, and note taker. This is another misunderstood stance of the product owner. In this case, the product owner gives too much time to write user stories in JIRA or any other tool. One can observe the following pattern associated with Story Writer stance of a Product Owner:
- The backlog is well organized. He or she himself does all detailing like acceptance criteria, estimation, ordering, etc.
- PO does not consult the development team. Usually, all the details are present in the JIRA ticket itself.
- The main drawback of this stance is that the Scrum Team remains to be dependent on the Product Owner, which eventually slows the team down.
- Sometimes PO acts as a technical writer or business analyst
How to move away from Story Writer stance – Nothing wrong in having a well-managed backlog. One thing that you keep in mind is that focus on ‘what’ more than ‘how’.
The Line Manager: The Product Owner as a manager is typically responsible for performance management and evaluating the team. The Manager typically has many one-on-one conversations with each of the team members, to learn more about their personal goals, learning needs, and performance.
Common patterns associated with Line Manager stance:
- Doing performance management
- Having a lot of one-on-ones with team members
- Focused on their personal development
It’s all very important work, but not for you as a Product Owner. All this stuff is distracting you from doing your actual job as a Product Owner, which is to maximize the value of the product. Training and development needs should be left to the Scrum Master or an Agile coach.
How to move away from Line Manager stance – As I said earlier, look for an experienced Scrum Master or Agile Coach, to help you change the organization and its governance as a PO should not have the line management responsibilities.
The Project Manager: There are chances that these product owners have a traditional project management background and they run product delivery as a project delivery strictly within the iron triangle of cost, time, and scope.
Following patterns can be observed with Project Manager stance:
- The Project Manager is typically concerned with the day-to-day progress of the development team.
- They rarely (or never) miss a Daily Scrum, they’re involved during the Daily Scrum and it might just be that they’re asking individual team members what they’ve done, what they’re going to do, and if anything is blocking them.
- The Project Manager tends to measure the success of the team in the form of increased Velocity. The Project Manager tends to ‘report’ on Story Points, Burndown Charts and Velocity to the stakeholder during the Sprint Review.
- Typically, when the Development Team has delivered more Story Points than a previous Sprint, the Project Manager gets excited! But we know success can’t be measured in terms of increased velocity per sprint; rather it’s the value delivered to the end-users.
How to move away from Project Manager stance – Develop an Agile mindset and start talking about stuff like Return on Investment, Customer Satisfaction (e.g. NPS) and Total Cost of Ownership. Have a conversation with your stakeholders about the goals that you want to achieve rather than just the day to day progress.
The Subject Matter Expert: According to Wikipedia – A domain expert is a person with special knowledge or skills in a particular area of endeavour (e.g. an accountant is an expert in the domain of accountancy). The development of accounting software requires knowledge in two different domains: accounting and software. Some of the development workers may be experts in one domain and not the other.
Product Owners that favour this stance are a blessing and a curse. When you bring relevant domain knowledge to the Scrum Team, they can make more informed decisions and create a better plan to achieve (Sprint) Goals. The worst part is that they will not only tell how what to do but also how to do it, and; this goes against the notion of the autonomy and self-organization of the development team.
How to move away from SME stance – To overcome, you have two choices, either you become part of the development team or start sharing your knowledge with them, make sure the Development Team gets full access to your domain expertise which will eventually make them more self-organizing. You can do this by documentation, sketches, process maps and conducting knowledge sharing sessions.
The Gatekeeper: The Gatekeeper is the single point of contact between the Scrum Team and the outside world. The Gatekeeper tends to block all connections between the Development Team and its stakeholders; all communication goes through him/her. The Gatekeeper may be acting as or being an important Product Owner, because (s)he has to answer all the Development Teams’ questions.
Observed patterns when a product owner takes The Gatekeeper stance:
- He thinks the developers are not well equipped to talk to the stakeholders.
- He has to sign-off on all the requirements and deliverables that the Development Team produces.
- At times (s)he is secretive about the information that needs to be shared with the development team.
- There should be nothing that is delivered or shown to customers or released/deployed to production without the Gatekeeper signing off on it first!
As you can see the main drawback of this stance that the development team can’t grow and can’t be self-organised hence, you’ll have to move away from this stance and start trusting your team.
The preferred Stances of the Product Owner
When there are misunderstood or non-preferred Stances, there should also be preferred Stances of a Product Owner! The preferred stances are related to the constructive, positive and valuable stances that a product owner should assume more often than not. The preferred Stances are:
The Visionary, The Collaborator, The Customer Representative, The Decision Maker, The Experimenter, and The Influencer
“Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Churchill
Visionary Product Owners create and share the vision. They are not content with the present rather they always think about what it could be in the future. Some of the well-known great visionary leaders are Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc. They have a clear vision about the future, they actively challenge the status quo and they are inspiring leaders to follow.
Visionary Product Owners know that there will be challenges along the way. They know they may encounter setbacks. But they also know the great value of fulfilling the vision. Visionary Product Owners are great storytellers it is a quality that helps them to effectively share their vision. When a product owner takes the Visionary stance, it unifies the whole team.
Some positive outcomes and benefits that we observe when Product Owners take the Visionary stance more often is:
- Development Teams will be able to make more day-to-day decisions, but also contribute to the vision and strategy by offering their knowledge and insights.
- When an individual understands and aligns with the core values and vision of the organization, they can readily commit to, and engage in, the organization’s efforts.
- When personnel understand and buy-in to the organization’s vision statement, it brings them together.
The Collaborator: In the context of a Scrum Product Owner as a Collaborator, what we typically see them doing is engaging with, and closely working together with the various stakeholders and Development Team(s). Great collaborators know that people like to be heard and to know that their ideas and thoughts are being taken into consideration. Listening to each other and exchanging ideas and opinions is a key element of collaboration. A collaborative Product Owner tends to support people in their discovery process, whether it’s about defining goals, clarifying PBIs or, analysing customer needs. The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product after all and how can you possibly deliver any value alone?
Some positive outcomes and benefits that we observe when Product Owners take the Collaborator stance more often is:
- Better alignment helps clear understanding of the user requirements
- Self-organized and motivated team
- Better communication helps in value to be delivered faster to the marketplace
The Customer Representative: Taking the Collaborator stance a notch further, Product Owners who take the stance of the Customer Representative tend to focus on helping other people (Development Team or others) to understand what customers need, what their challenges are, what pains and gains they have. When taking the Customer Representative stance, the Product Owner tends to explain how our work affects customers, users and, business processes. When Product Owners take the Customer Representative stance more often:
- The Development Team(s) have a greater understanding of the actual, and real customers and users.
- With this increased understanding of users and customers, including their pains and gains and what they’re trying to achieve, the Development Teams can build a better product or service, that better fits the customer needs.
- The Development Teams become more and more self-organizing because they can relate to and empathize with customers and users.
- It results in an increased Customer Satisfaction and a better Net Promoter Score.
The Decision Maker: You might have seen at times when teams have to make a decision and choose one among many options. Opposite to the Story writer or Clerk, a Decision-Maker Product Owner evaluates various options and takes a rational decision that helps the team, stakeholders and, the overall product. As decision-makers, they have to decide what items to add to the Product Backlog, what items to remove from it, how to order the Product Backlog to maximize the products’ value. They have to make decisions about the Product Vision and Strategy. They have to decide when to release the Product Increment to the market, etc.
Following are the key factors which cause a delay in decision making:
- Overwhelming amount of options or information
- Fear of failure
- Lack of assertiveness
Good product owners know that quickly delivering something that works and then learning from the feedback is the best way to ensure that the product is moving in the right direction.
One of the many benefits of taking this stance is a reduction in the cycle time as they (POs) make decisions quickly. They get stuff done.
The Experimenter: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” — Albert Einstein —
Sir Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla; are considered to be some of the greatest scientists of all times. It is these scientists, these innovators and these Experimenters who are the driving force of innovation.
When taking the stance of an Experimenter, The Product Owner explains what we know AND what we don’t know. They state hypotheses and assumptions, instead of User Stories and requirements. They see the work that the team does as experiments to discover new and hidden value, rather executing and delivering ‘set-in-stone’ work packages. The Experimenter understands that there is more unknown than known and therefore feels the need of trying out new things, explore, innovate, and experiment.
When a Product Owner is someone who experiments, then Innovation rate improves., Technical Debt is reduced, Time to Market is also reduced and high-quality products and services are more likely to meet customer and user needs. With so may learning and innovation opportunities, developers tend to be happier and feel proud to be working for such a Scrum team.
The Influencer: Product Owners who are great Influencers, they are considered to be Product Owners who get things done without exercising formal authority over a person or, team. The Influencerhelps the stakeholders to align around the product vision, strategy, goals and, objectives. Influencing the stakeholders and Scrum Team is a hard but very important job. The Influencer uses effective communication, negotiation and influencing skills to get people to join the cause.
“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” ― Winston Churchill
When the Product Owner is also an influencer, (S)he will be able to build a united force, having a positive impact on organizational effectiveness. Inspired by a strong vision, influencers manage to achieve buy-in amongst people and bring them together. Influencers built up energy and make change happen. It is inspiring to others and aligns them to work towards a shared goal.
The Product Owner brings the business perspective to the software product being created and sustained into a Scrum Team. The Product Owner represents all stakeholders, internal and external, to the Development Team. I hope both misunderstood and preferred stances of a product owner will help you in self-reflection. If you assume misunderstood stances more often than not then you may course correct, adapt and, move towards one of the preferred ones. If you are reading this article then you are already on the way towards the great product ownership journey.
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