The product owner (PO) role is incredibly important in any Agile effort. The product owner leads, manages and prioritizes the backlog and networks with stakeholders, customers, and developers of all stripes.  All sorts of problems can beset the role. However, most of those problems are either self-inflicted or a result of poor organizational design.  A laundry list of problems based on observation and responses from other product owners include:

  1. Product Owners Are From IT
  2. Product Owners Are Not Part of The Team
  3. Having a Project versus Product Orientation
  4. Overly Broad and/or Ill-Defined Product Owner Role
  5. Using Proxy Product Owners
  6. Adopting Technical and Business Product Owners
  7. Allowing Part-time Product Owners
  8. Failure of Product Owner to Lead
  9. Product Owner with Controlling Personality

The next set of difficulties are:

  1. Allowing Part-time Product Owners:

The PO role has a large number of responsibilities. Each of those responsibilities can be decomposed into a larger set of tasks.  For example decomposing the responsibility for “prioritizing the backlog” includes the actions needed to understand the item, then to understand the need for the item, the value of the item and then to document that value (even if that documentation is just to say it out loud in public). Each one of those steps takes time and effort; if a product owner doesn’t have that time, they will cut corners.  This is often the case as identified by Chris Vedete, Product Owner for The Carlyle Group’  

“The PO is likely not dedicated to just being a PO. That means they have a day job or other tasks they focus on. This could mean a PO isn’t as engaged as they should be, likely leading to project teams not getting feedback as quickly as they need.”

Part time product owners are a study in cutting corners UNLESS the team or a team member provides support.  Angela Wick, author, and consultant from QA-Squared, suggested when recently interviewed for an upcoming Software Process and Measurement Cast that the business analyst is perfectly positioned to supplement the product owner when needed.

  1. Failure of the Product Owner to Lead:

A critical component of the product owner role is leadership.  The product owner’s role is critical in articulating and communicating the sponsor’s strategic vision. The vision is molded not only by how the PO talks about the vision but how the PO shapes the backlog, involves outside voices and facilitates collaboration. The product owner’s leadership shapes not only the product but also the culture of the team.  When product owners fail to lead, someone else will step into the gap and the outcome may not be what the organization needs or expects.  Product owner leadership failures are often the cause when teams discover mismatched expectations during demonstrations. The simplest and most effective solution to this problem is to replace the product owner.  Product owners that can’t, won’t, or do not have the time to lead should not be product owners; a better role might a subject matter expert providing expertise to the team. If the product owner can’t be replaced, other team members will need to help prop them up while actively helping them grow as a leader.

  1. Product Owner With A Controlling Personality:

One of the core assumptions of Agile is that team members will provide collaborative input into how the business problems they are committed to addressing are resolved. Product owners that are overly controlling end up talking in a fishbowl.  The team they work with will be a direct reflection of the product owner’s ideas and knowledge base. This undermines the value a team with a diverse knowledge and experience base can deliver. Product owners need to learn to ask questions rather than telling.  The questions need to be both non-self-serving and non-leading questions.  

The product owner role is hard.  Kent McDonald, Product Manager and Writer at Knowledge Bridge Partners, stated that “The by-the-book description of product owner that requires someone to be all knowing.” Kent’s statement could lead us to believe that a good product owner needs to be a denizen of the Marvel Universe, organizations can avoid the nine problems impacting product owners. Part of the solution is awareness, part is ensuring the organization supports good product owner behavior, part is selecting the right product owner and the final SIGNIFICANT part is organizational design. In the end, we don’t have to make the product owner role any harder than it needs to be!