Critical Obstacles that Limit the Product Owner’s Success

By | October 15, 2019

The product owner (PO) must be a meaningful participant of the Scrum project. It’s necessary for this individual to be engaged from start-to-finish, meaning that other responsibilities should be kept to a minimum. The PO must help foster a culture of high-participation and a commitment to providing value to the customer early and often. The value expected by the customer is only truly known when the PO takes the time to learn the outcomes that are essential for this stakeholder, which means that knowing the vision of the organization is vital to success.

Obstacle: Product Owner Lacks Power to Make Decisions

Steve Spearman, Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) and Principal of Agile for All, states that a key obstacle faced by product owners is failing to be the real “owner” who is empowered to make the final decisions. The PO is a key stakeholder who has a clear grasp of the business requirements and shares that content with the dev team. In some organizations, the product owner must get clearance from layers of management before rendering a decision, even in cases when the issues are trivial. Lacking the decision-making power is a recipe for failure for the product owner and for the project itself.

Obstacle: Too Busy Doing Other Stuff

There is a sharp difference between ideal time and actual time allotted to Scrum-related work. The ideal perspective means that the product owner and other Scrum core team members are working 8 hours per day on the assigned activities. However, Spearman cautions that oftentimes the PO has insufficient time to be effective in this role. For example, the product owner might also be assigned operational duties, such as managing accounts and providing tech support. There are also many situations in which the PO is pulled from the Scrum project to help put out fires. When the product owner lacks the time to work on the project, the value promised to the customer may go unattended. To make matters worse, the dev team may proceed without input from the product owner and work on deliverables based on limited knowledge.

Obstacles: Poor Relationship with the Dev Team

In some cases, product owners get off on the wrong foot with the dev team, and it goes downhill from there. Spearman mentions that the PO may not feel part of the team. To improve the relationship with the development team, the product owner should promote a culture of collaboration, trust, and transparency. The concept is rather simple … that is, focus on using the combined skills, knowledge, and talents to provide maximum value to the customer. The product owner must also be aware that the dev team is composed of subject matter experts (SMEs) in their respective disciplines, which means their opinions regarding how the work is performed matters.

Takeaway

Spearman notes that product owners may sometimes feel overwhelmed with too much responsibility, thinking that all work is dependent on them with little to no help from the dev team and other stakeholders. However, to improve the chances of success, successful product owners should possess excellent awareness of the situation and the stakeholders particular to the Scrum project they are assigned to lead.

The fact is that obstacles are par for the course when taking on the role of the product owner. In short, the difference between a successful product owner and one that falls short of expectations depends on how the obstacles are either mitigated or managed when they arise.

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