Product Owners Suck

Product Owners Suck

Teams doing Scrum “by the book” will have a Product Owner. The Scrum Handbook describes this role thusly:

“The Scrum 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.”

It goes on to say:

“The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog.”

i.e. the Single Wringable Neck.

Outwith Scrum “by the book”, many teams, Scrum or otherwise, will find themselves with a Product Owner, almost always, in practice, outside the immediate development team itself.

One characteristic common to every Product Owner role I have ever seen has been “push”. The Product Owner pushes work (features, stories, or whatever the unit of backlog) into the backlog, and thus onto the team. The Product Owner generally dictates the priorities of the work items in the backlog, too.

Here’s where the dysfunctions creep in. If we accept that we’d like to encourage intrinsic motivation in the team, and that Dan Pink’s three factors of intrinsic motivation apply (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose), then we begin to see how the typical Product Owner stance sucks the motivation away from the team by undermining their autonomy (they’re expected to do what’s pushed on them, with the priorities dictated), their mastery (focus is on delivery not learning), and purpose (the purpose is that of the PO, often opaque or little shared, not a shared common purpose across everyone involved).

Go Pull

I’ve seen clients where this push-oriented Product Owner role has served no one well. Not the Product Owner, nor the development team, nor the product, nor the customers. The Product Owner is worn to a frazzle trying to herd the developers, like cats, towards the outcomes he or she thinks the customers want. It’s most unlikely the Product Owner will know what features are valuable, and how they should work, before stuff gets in front of the customers anyway, and the delays in the “push” model just exacerbate this dysfunction.

Further, in the push model, developers have little opportunity to experiment and innovate. They’re often far better placed than the Product Owner or even the customers to spot opportunities for breakthrough innovations, both large and small, yet the push model basically precludes them from contributing in this way.

So why not turn it around? In my career, I’ve seen all the best products come from development teams that directly own the product. And, consequently, directly own the relationship with the customer. Often, not the whole team, as this might irk the customers – at Familiar we had one member of the development team act as “customer liaison” – a role which could rotate between team members if it started to become a chore for the person in question.

It’s unlikely the Product Owner will wish to do themselves out of a job, so how can we arrange things such that everyone has a better time than with the “push” model? And so we make even better use of the most valuable things the Product Owner has – product domain expertise and customer nous?

In the service (call centre, etc.) sector, Vanguard introduced the idea of front-line call staff taking all the calls, with limited (brief) training to handle the most common types of call, and with experts and specialists on hand to help them through handling the less common types of call as they arrive.

Transferring this idea to the Product Owner role, why not have the development team own the product, take all the decisions about features, stories and priorities – by pulling information from the customers – and whenever the development team has some questions they can’t answer themselves or in conjunction with the customers, have the Product Owner (now Product Domain Specialist or some such renamed role) on hand to pitch in and provide the missing knowledge or expertise.

I guess the Analytic minded organisations out there will feel uneasy about no longer having their hands around the Single Wringable Neck, but learning about Team Accountability might go some way to compensate for this?

So, let the teams suck (pull), instead of having the Product Owner push.

– Bob

PS Note that the above suggestion – to hand over core elements of the Product Owner role to the development team – assumes the development team owns the scope for the whole product, not just the software, and can collaborate and coordinate with other people and groups to ensure the whole product is delivered (whether incrementally for not). See also: Obeya.

Further Reading

The Transformation of O2 – A Vanguard Case Study in Reengineering Call Centres (pdf)

3 comments
  1. Bert said:

    I could not agree more!

  2. Jon said:

    Love this Bob. No one wants work pushed onto themselves, give the team the power, responsibility and self respect.

  3. While it does happen that the Product Owner pushes work onto the team, the Scrum guide is very explicit that the team pulls work. c.f.: “The number of items selected from the Product Backlog for the Sprint is solely up to the Development Team. Only the Development Team can assess what it can accomplish over the upcoming Sprint.”

    I am a bit surprised the “every product owner you have every seen” pushes work. That a lot of dysfunction! I have certainly seen POs that push work but I see far more that allow teams to pull work and for the teams to discuss what the “right” work is based on priority (ordering), feasibility, technology, etc.

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