Without a Product Owner…

September 30, 20083 min

…you are not doing Scrum.  Recently, I had given a number of Scrum Lead classes to people interested in change.  Invariably when you get a bunch of people together who are dealing with the same organizational obstacles, they want to know why the organization has had so much difficulty in adopting Scrum.  After oberving a number of people who have attended my class apply Scrum, there is one consistent thread with all these Teams: no Product Owners.

The Product Owner is responsible for executing on the Vision for the product and this is manifested through the Product Backlog – the central planning artifact in Scrum.  The Product Backlog is simply a list of all the functional and non-functional requirements for the product.  It is just all the stuff that needs to be done to release the product.  It can have lots of structure or very little; it is up to your environment and how much process ceremony your organization requires\is comfortable with.  The Product Owner is also the gatekeeper of what goes into the Product Backlog and their priorities.  As Ken Schwaber likes to say, and I am paraphrasing here, “The Product Owner is the single wringable neck”.

So how does this relate to my observations?  Teams without Product Owners tend not to execute Scrum very well in a number of key ways:

  1. Missing the Product Backlog – Teams will naturally focus on the Sprint Backlog since that is their artifact.  IME, no Product Backlog usually means Teams will lurch from Sprint-to-Sprint with little focus on strategy or the “big picture” in mind.
  2. Low quality Sprint Reviews – Sprint Reviews will focus on completion of engineering tasks and not seen as a chance to gather meaningful feedback or re-prioritize.  I have seen a lot of “Atta boy”, back slapping reviews for completion of engineering tasks, but that is not the point of a Sprint Review.
  3. Cursory Sprint Planning – the Product Owner helps the Team understand the business context of the work the Team commits to.  When the missing Product Owner is missing, the Team will only use Sprint Planning to assign\sign-up for work and not discuss the goals for the product.
  4. Little thought about the Customer value – The Product Owner represents the Customer or gives voice to their needs.  Without this person at the table, literally & figuratively, Teams generally will not think about Customer value.
  5. Lack of balance between business & engineering – Normally, when there is no person on the Team whose job is to think about the business, the engineers will make all the decisions.  Do you really want your engineers making business decisions?

Scrum is a very simple framework with clear roles.  Missing one of the key roles creates an imbalance in the system, a very serious imbalance.  I used to say that if you cannot find a Product Owner then maybe you should just cancel the project, i.e. if the organization cannot dedicate an individual to the product, then maybe the product is not that valuable to begin with (which is useful information to know).  I’ve changed my mind on that statement – maybe the work is still valuable, but Scrum is not the right vehicle for implementation.

[Alternatively, you could also title this post “Without a Customer it is not XP” and all the same concepts apply – CEN]