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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)

Coaching, Scrum Mastering, and Expertise

[Tl;Dr: Is it more, or less, effective for coaches, etc. to have technical (non-coaching) abilities?]

Over the years I’ve heard every kind of opinion on whether technical expertise is an asset or liability for coaches, Scrum Masters, and the like. Some folks, mainly executives, have sworn they would never hire a Coach or Scrum Master with technical expertise. Others, mainly coaches and Scrum Masters, have held much the opposite opinion. Those being coached have rarely expressed an opinion (although I suspect that’s because they don’t get asked, or think it won’t count, and not because they’re indifferent on the subject).

Personally, I tend to the opinion that, if it were down to me, I’d look for folks with excellent and demonstrable coaching skills, and not worry about the presence or absence of technical abilities unless they seemed intrusive and likely to interfere with the coaching dynamic. I recognise the argument that technical people lend more credibility to like-minded (i.e. technically capable) coaches because they find it easier to respect and identify with such folks. I also believe this argument to be a red herring, at least in the case where the coach or Scrum Master is effective and capable in the Coaching or Scrum Mastering skill-sets.

This is probably a good place to mention the Inner Game, and the suggestion by one of its founders, Sir John Whitmore, that “technical” knowledge and experience is a decided handicap for coaches and the coached, alike. In his book “Coaching For Performance” he tells several stories about this phenomenon, in particular that of the tennis group who, deprived of their regular tennis coach (and tennis expert) improved much more quickly under a substitute coach (with much coaching and skiing experience but no tennis experience).

Given that opinions on this topic seem all over the map, and many (mainly fruitless) discussions continue, I wonder if you have any experiences you’d be willing to share here?

– Bob

Further Reading

Coaching For Performance ~ Sir John Whitmore

What’s The One Question A Scrum Master Must Ask?

When interviewing for a new Scrum Master or similar position, we can often intuit much about the position, the team and the company from those many little clues which offer themselves. But one thing often less obvious, and so, worth asking about is:

“How does the blockers’ pipeline work here?”

The key role of the Scrum Master is to facilitate the escalation (and to some extent, resolution) of blockers a.k.a. impediments – problems noted by the team but not actionable / fixable by them because the root cause lies outside their span of control.

Some organisations will already have a pipeline or process for escalating such “blockers”. Many more will not, not often understand the need for one and the role of non-team people in that process.

The prospective Scrum Master may want to see how the land lies before committing to a position in an organisation that is not ready or able to institute an effective blockers’ pipeline.

– Bob

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