Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Product Owner Problem

“We’re really struggling with the Product Owner concept, and many of our Scrum teams just don’t feel very productive.” they told us. “We’d like you to take a look at this and make some recommendations.” The company had several vertical markets, with a Scrum team of about ten people assigned to each market. Each market had a Product Manager, a traditional role found in most product companies. The company was clear about the role of a Product Manager; after all, there are university courses and professional organizations for this role. The Product Managers had a customer-facing job that included business responsibility for determining product direction and capability.

However, there was serious confusion about the Scrum role of Product Owner and its fit with the classic role of Product Manager. In addition to business responsibility, the Scrum Product Owner has the team-facing responsibility of managing the detailed product requirements.[1] In this company, the Product Managers found it impossible to handle both the customer-facing and team-facing jobs at the same time. So most teams had added an additional person to assist the Product Manager by preparing stories for the team, and called this person the Product Owner. The job of these Product Owners resembled the classic role of business analyst or, in some cases, user interaction designer.

Unfortunately, these Product Owners had little technical background in analysis or design, and yet they were expected to prepare detailed stories for the development team. Critical tradeoffs between business and technical issues often fell to these Scrum Product Owners, yet they had neither the first hand customer knowledge nor the in-depth technical knowledge to make such decisions wisely. They had become a choke point in the information flow between the Product Manager and the development team.

We asked the obvious question: How are things organized in the markets where things seem to be working well? It turns out that in the two highly successful vertical markets, there was no Product Owner preparing and prioritizing stories for the development team. Instead, the Product Manager had regular high level conversations with the development team about the general capabilities that would be desirable over the next two or three months. They discussed the feasibility of adding features and the results that could be expected. A real time application was created to show live web analytics of several key metrics that the Product Manager correlated to increased revenue. Then the team developed the capabilities most likely to drive the metrics in the right direction, observed the results, and modified their development plans accordingly.

This is a pattern we have seen frequently: Product Managers who lack the time, training, or temperament to handle both the customer-facing and the team-facing responsibilities of software development have two options. They can appoint Scrum Product Owners for each development team, or they can provide high-level guidance to a development team capable of designing the product and setting its own priorities. We observe that the second option generally works better, because an intermediary Product Owner brings a single perspective and limited time to the complex job of designing a product.

In 1988, Tom Gilb wrote the book Principles of Software Engineering Management, which is now in its 20th printing. One of the earliest advocates of evolutionary development, he has recently reiterated the elements of good software engineering in an article in Agile Record[2], from which I quote liberally:
Principle 1. Control projects by quantified critical-few, results.
1 Page total! (not stories, functions, features, use cases, objects, ..)
Principle 2. Make sure those results are business results, not technical.
Align your project with your financial sponsor’s interests!
Principle 3. Give developers freedom, to find out how to deliver those results.
The worst scenario I can imagine is when we allow real customers, users, and our own salespeople to dictate ‘functions and features’ to the developers, carefully disguised as ‘customer requirements’. Maybe conveyed by our Product Owners. If you go slightly below the surface, of these false ‘requirements’ (‘means’, not ‘ends’), you will immediately find that they are not really requirements. They are really bad amateur design, for the ‘real’ requirements – implied but not well defined.
Principle 4. Estimate the impacts of your designs, on your quantified goals.
….We have to design and architect with regard to many stakeholders, many quality and performance objectives, many constraints, many conflicting priorities. We have to do so in an ongoing evolutionary sea of changes with regard to all requirements, all stakeholders, all priorities, and all potential architectures…. a designer [should be able] to estimate the many impacts of a suggested design on our requirements.
Principle 5. Select designs with the best value impacts for their costs, do them first.
Assuming we find the assertion above, that we should estimate and measure the potential, and real, impacts of designs and architecture on our requirements, to be common sense. Then I would like to argue that our basic method of deciding ‘which designs to adopt’, should be based on which ones have the best value for money.
Principle 6. Decompose the workflow, into weekly (or 2% of budget) time boxes.
….I would argue that we need to do more than chunk by ‘product owner prioritized requirements’. We need to chunk the value flow itself – not just by story/function/use cases. This value chunking is similar to the previous principle of prioritizing the designs of best value/cost.
Principle 7. Change designs, based on quantified value and cost experience of implementation.
Principle 8. Change requirements, based in quantified value and cost experience, new inputs.
Principle 9. Involve the stakeholders, every week, in setting quantified value goals.
….In real projects, of moderate size, there are 20 to 40 interesting stakeholder roles worth considering…. But it can never be a simple matter of analyzing all stakeholders and their needs, and priorities of those needs up front. The fact of actual value delivery on a continuous basis will change needs and priorities. The external environment of stakeholders (politics, competitors, science, economics) will constantly change their priorities, and indeed even change the fact of who the stakeholders are. So we need to keep some kind of line open to the real world, on a continuous basis. We need to try to sense new prioritized requirements as they emerge, in front of earlier winners. It is not enough to think of requirements as simple functions and use cases. The most critical and pervasive requirements are overall system quality requirements, and it is the numeric levels of the ‘ilities’ that are critical to adjust, so they are in balance with all other considerations.
Principle 10. Involve the stakeholders, every week, in actually using value increments.
….I believe that should be the aim of each increment. Not ‘delivering working code to customers’. This means you need to recognize exactly which stakeholder type is projected to receive exactly which value improvement, and plan to have them, or a useful subset of them, on hand to get the increment, and evaluate the value delivered.
The Scrum Product Owner might be a role, but it should not be a job title. Product Owners wear many hats: Product Manager, Systems Engineer, User Interaction Designer, Software Architect, Business Analyst, Quality Assurance Expert, even Technical Writer. We would do well to use these well-known job titles, rather than invent a new, ambiguous title that tends to create a choke point and often removes from the development team its most important role – that of product design.

Discovery of the right thing to build is the most important step in creating a good product. Get that wrong and you have achieved 100% waste. Delegating decisions about what to build to a single Product Owner is outsourcing the most important work of the development team to a person who is unlikely to have the skills or knowledge to make really good decisions. The flaw in many Product Owner implementations is the idea that the Product Owner prepares detailed stories for the team to implement. This does not allow team members to be partners and collaborators in designing the product.

The entire team needs to be part of the design decision process. Team members should have the level of knowledge of the problems and opportunities being addressed necessary for them to contribute their unique perspective to the product design. Only when decisions cannot be made by the development team would they be resolved by a product leader. The main team-facing responsibility of the product leader is to ensure the people doing the detailed design have a clear understanding of the overall product direction.

The concept of single focus of accountability is at the center of this issue. Too often, accountability is implemented as a prioritized list of product details (stories) rather than as communication of intended results (business relevant metrics). As a result, the expertise, creative input, and passion of team members is sacrificed to the false goal of a single point of responsibility.
[1] “The Product Owner is responsible for the Product Backlog, its contents, its availability, and its prioritization.” “The Product Backlog represents everything necessary to develop and launch a successful product. It is a list of all features, functions, technologies, enhancements, and bug fixes that constitute the changes that will be made to the product for future releases.” From Scrum: Developed and sustained by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland;

[2] “Value-Driven Development Principles and Values – Agility is the Tool, not the Master.” Agile Record, Issue 3, July 2010, pp 18-25. Available at Used with permission.

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