The Product-Owner as an antipattern

Do you know a project with a real product owner?

The clue is in the name. It actually consist of two parts. ‘Product’ and ‘Owner’. Most POs (as product owners in my neck of the woods tend to be abbreviated) neither have a product nor do they own it.

Recently the PO topic came up in a discussion about The Rules of The Scrum Process. (FWIW: Scrum is not a process but a process framework and thus the ‘rules of the game’ apply to the meta-level and transcend only transitionally to the implementations)

Case in point: Does Scrum allow the PO to be present at the Daily Scrum? Notwithstanding the endless options to find the right answer (see sidebar),

e.g. due to the different possibilities to emphasize todays scrum guide’s “The Daily Scrum is an internal meeting for the Development Team. If others are present, the Scrum Master ensures that they do not disrupt the meeting.” –one could either stress the internal meeting part or the others are present part, or the multitude of possible interpretations for the quote “Anyone who needs to know what’s going on with the project can come to the daily scrum and listen”[emphasis added] from Ken Schwabers original book, [p40].

the most important question for me was:
“Why is it so important to answer that question?”

It turned out that the developers in that team where afraid that the PO would be worried by what he would hear in the daily scrum, the scrum master was afraid that the developers would not speak as openly as necessary if the PO were to be present.

For me this situation contains an alarming amount of alarm signals with regard to the scrum values of openness, courage, and respect as well as for the scrum pillar of transparency.

If Product Owners are frightened by the things they hear in the daily scrum –and worse: take action based on the information they gather from the daily scrum- the Scrum Master has a lot of work on her –or his– hands to establish transparency and foster courage. (But please keep in mind that it’s not yet possible to install values.)

A tangent on this topic was that the Product Owner doesn’t understand the developers and thus should not hear them talk amongst themselves about challenges they face. To me, “The PO doesn’t understand the developers” is a very good description for a (team-) culture that is quite dysfunctional for Scrum.

[So perhaps scrum isn’t the best choice for the situation at hand – how about trying FDD or DSDM? But I digress]

Of course the Product Owner doesn’t have to know everything. Quite the opposite actually: they are even encouraged to delegate. According to the 2017 Scrum Guide: “The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.”

Of course, if the Product Owner does delegate some of their work to the team, that would probably turn up on their task-list as well. And since “Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed” is also part of the PO’s responsibilities, they would have to interact with the team even more. Probably even become part of the team. Which would nicely fit with the old eXtreme Programming value of the on-site customer.

So why did I call the Product Owner an anti-pattern?
Because most of the time they aren’t. They neither have the final say regarding the ordering of the items to implement, nor do they have a real chance to influence the economical outcome of the work. They simply don’t own the product.

So perhaps –whenever we see a Product Owner who isn’t– let’s take a step back from using the Scrum term of product owner and look around for things that are actually happening (Kanban people might call that: “start with what you do now”).

Perhaps even try to look out for some other agile process templates which maybe fit your reality more closely.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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