Why are there no product owners in Kanban?

originally by Michael Mahlberg on agile-aspects
Why are there no product owners in Kanban?

Or perhaps the better question would be: Are there no product owners in the Kanban method?

It is actually a question I hear more often lately – especially since I started to publicly rant against the misnomer that “product owner” has become.

The question doesn’t make too much sense

As I mentioned earlier it does not make too much sense to directly compare the Kanban method and Scrum because they exist on different levels. Same is true for their lingo.

The Kanban method neither promotes or prescribes roles

There is no formal definition of any role. (cf. Essential Kanban Condensed, p. 33) The aim of the Kanban method is to help create systems that can evolve, following an agreed upon –and in itself evolving– set of explicit policies. That being said, there are roles that the Kanban community has observed as emerging in many Kanban scenarios, but those are not prescriptive. (And of course, there’s more to the Kanban method than explicit policies – bear with me for the sake of the role argument with regard to the product owner)

Are there any product owners? Anywhere?

The first principle I ever heard when I learned about the Kanban Method was “Start with what you are doing now.” I'm personally quite fond of the statement “Accept reality.”

Accept reality

However you put it – the role that is described as a product owner in the original scrum literature (imho that would be Schwaber, 1995 or Schwaber, 2003) is very hard to find out in the fields. As a story goes which makes its round in Germany right now, some famous product development guru (if someone could point me to the source I would be happy to quote the original source) asked a room full of conference attendees how many of them were “product owners.” Almost everyone raised a hand. The next question was “Who could end their product tomorrow?” No one lifted a hand. Thus the stated conclusion was “So – we don’t have any product owners in the room.”
This might sound a bit harsh, but it points to a quite valid aspect of working together IMHO: the question of our understanding of that role.

What is a product owner?

In today’s reality, there are many people who are called product owners, but who aren’t really product owners in the original sense. That’s not as bad as it sounds. At least many people have a rough idea of what a product owner could be. The trouble is that there are many different interpretations of the role. Unfortunately only very few of them are coherent with the original definition. Given that the process descriptions out there use the term as it is interpreted in their context, problems arise when business analysts, subject matter experts, product managers, requirements engineers and other people working on the conceptual development of products are all collated into the umbrella term “product owner.” If you hold people accountable for ordering work items who are specialized in requirements analysis or if you try to get the conceptual sign-off for a new decision table implementation from someone who’s area of competence is customer management it is highly probable that you will be disappointed. “You” in this case can be anyone – from the CEO to the customer to yourself. I have witnessed huge disaggreements about the competencies of the different product owners (note the plural) that work together with a team. A lot of these arguments vanished when we dropped the name “product owner” and used terms appropriate for the real expectations and competencies. But then the process models had to be adapted to these new names. Which, in itself, is not necessarily a catastrophe, but –more often than not– only the end of an illusion. Those descriptions had to be adapted because they didn’t fit “anymore.“ Actually, they never had, but with the new wording, the discrepancies became visible. And all of a sudden, a model of the real –living– workflow became visible.

The Kanban method makes these things explicit by default

Amongst other things the Kanban method encompasses 6 practices –Visualize [work and workflow], Limit work in progress, Manage flow, Make policies explicit, Implement feedback loops and Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally.
By applying only two of them – “Visualizing” the real workflow and “making [the real ] policies explicit” – you already can find out if there are product owners in your actual workflow. And by applying the other practices and policies you can evolve (step by step) your technology business to an organization that is fitter for purpose than it is today. But that would fill a whole book. Or several. 🙂

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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