How do you cope with an unsuitable product owner?
From a business perspective the Product Owner is the most important role in Scrum. This person is responsible for defining and prioritizing requirements and if they get it wrong the business could be living with the consequences for years to come. Yet all too often I’ve found their selection to be a haphazard one and the support they are offered limited. It seems that we’re willing to appoint a single subject matter expert as god and hope it all works out all right in the end.
It is important for the business user to be the Product Owner and for them to provide the final say on what is to be done and whether what’s been done is good enough. Expecting them to do all the legwork that goes into it is, perhaps, a step too far.
I came up through the Business Process Reengineering route, so I’ve a set of skills that help me fulfill the Product Owner role quite comfortably. Being a little immodest, I believe that the skills I’ve acquired around business design, requirements gathering and so on make me a strong Product Owner. When I’ve been on the project management side I’ve often found myself drawn into a space where I’m having to do more of this type work because the client hasn’t had the skills in their designated driver to move the design forwards. While it gets things done it does create the potential for a conflict of interest that hasn’t always sat comfortably.
My counter to this is usually to assign a Business Analyst to act as a “product owner by proxy”. I task the BA with acting as the Product Owner’s shadow, turning their ideas into robust designs, maintaining requirements in the product backlog and facilitating a process of understanding. There is a risk with this that the true Product Owner backs away from this, which is why I always insist on them actively participating in the decision making process and providing the “sign-off” on requirements.
Some ScrumMasters will complain this goes against the spirit of Scrum and that I should be coaching and mentoring the Product Owner in order to help them fulfill their role. The reality of business is, however, that the skills of the Product Owner are not always aligned with the talents of the individual concern and often nor should they be.