As organizations find that using Agile delivers higher levels customer satisfaction, higher quality and greater efficiency and effectiveness, they try Agile in more situations. One of the most common scenarios that organizations struggle with as they expand their use of Agile is with larger and larger projects. One common stumbling block is implementing the product owner at scale. Getting the product owner role wrong is a problem. The product owner plays a pivotal role in an Agile project. One of the critical aspects of the product owner role is the relationship between the product owner and the team, stakeholders/customers and Scrum masters. As projects are scaled, these relationships become more complicated.
Product Owner to Team(s): On paper, the relationship between a product owner and team is fairly straightforward. The product owner owns and prioritizes the backlog, provides a product vision, involves customers, users, and other stakeholders and collaborates with others on the team. But, the role is more complicated; the product owner is also a leader, mentor, politician, and confidant, just to name a few roles. Add more teams to a product owner’s plate, and the relationships get even more complicated because the number of possible combinations required at any one time increases.
Product Owner to Stakeholders/Customers: The product owner is the primary facilitator and connector between the team or teams and external stakeholders. The product owner gathers needs and priorities that he or she leverages to prioritize the backlog. As projects become larger, the pool of stakeholders and customers will increases, which will complicate the role of the product owner. It requires judgment and tools to balance needs as in order to prioritize. As a project grows the number of groups of customers and stakeholders generally increase.
Product Owner to Scrum Master(s): The relationship between the product owner and Scrum Master(s) should be fairly straightforward. The product owner prioritizes, makes decisions and connects the team with stakeholders, while the Scrum Master mentors and facilitates the team. My observation is that real life is more complicated. The two roles often blur based on the personalities of the people involved. As the number of teams and Scrum Masters increase things get messy if roles blur. Since the relationship between each combination of product owner, Scrum Master and team might be slightly different, it will be difficult to predict the outcomes of interactions as people and groups involved in the project randomly work together.
If a large project chooses to leverage several product owners, the potential combination of relationships between the additional product owners and the stakeholders, teams and Scrum Masters increases dramatically, as does the level of complexity. We will discuss this possibility later in this series on scaled product owners.
The relationship between product owners and other constituencies in a project gets more complex as the number of parties increase. Complexity requires a proactive mitigation to avoid the possible negative aspects, such as communication failure, quality issues, reduction in efficiency or simple project failure. We will tackle techniques to mitigate the complexity that scaling an Agile project can cause in the product owner role in the next installment.