At EPiC, we have encountered various approaches to the role of a Product Owner. Some organisations have fully embraced the agile concept, and reach out to us for support in embedding a consistent approach across their agile roles. Conversely, there are organisations who have adopted agile roles, though not the agile values, principles or mindset.
We have witnessed anti-patterns across all agile roles. No matter if it is a Product Owner, Scrum Master, or a Leader prescribing how a role should function, falling into anti-patterns is highly probable when you are not open to feedback, self-inspection, or continuous improvement.
When we partner with an organisation to support their business agility growth, we first get to know the organisation and their people, along with their current ways of working. Drawing on our agility expertise, we are then in a position to provide coaching, training, guidance and support to suit both the organisation and their people. This can involve some tough, though necessary, open dialogue around mindset, culture, and ways of working.
Today we are drilling down on some of those top anti-patterns of a Product Owner. If you recognise yourself or your Product Owner in any of these anti-patterns, or it raises your awareness to other anti-patterns, it is probably time to have an honest conversation.
A top anti-pattern a Product Owner inadvertently finds themselves foul of, is not being enabled to make decisions. A good Product Owner has both the right skills and product knowledge, along with the empowerment to make decisions for their product. It is the Leader’s role to understand what makes a high-class Product Owner, and remove any blockers standing in their way. This may mean developing their own mindset to that of a servant leader, over a more traditional manager style.
When a Product Owner is empowered and is given the ability to master their skills and hone their product knowledge, they are then in a position to honestly own their product. This includes owning the product vision and product backlog and understanding how and when to say ‘no’ to a particular feature or item.
A Product Owner that is unavailable to the development team will quickly find they are not able to build the best possible product for their customers.
It is the Product Owner’s responsibility to be available to the development team throughout the sprint for questions and support with any blockers. Teams without an engaged Product Owner may resort to not working on stories due to lack of clarity, making uninformed decisions, or unintentional errors. Product Owners may be responsible for multiple backlogs. It is their responsibility to manage their time, and be available to all teams.
The Product Owner needs to be involved in the detail. If they are too high in the organisation with priorities that match that position, a common anti-pattern is to appoint a proxy Product Owner to deal with the details. And then not empower them to make any decisions. This often results in a delay in decision making and can cause confusion and lack of trust in what is to be delivered. This impacts the development team, the quality of the product, and ultimately the customer will suffer.
A Product Owner does not manage the development team. A Product Owner that is monitoring how the team works or making decisions without collaborating with the team, is not fitting with the true essence of a Product Owner. Any Product Owner that is excluding the team from co-creating the ‘What’ for backlog items, or is telling the team the ‘How’ for backlog items, is demonstrating controlling behaviour.
The Product Owner should be providing the product vision to the development team to give them the big picture and understanding of where the product is heading. It is important they are continuously being taken on the journey. This supports motivation, and understanding of the backlog items. The Product Owner should be guiding and motivating them each sprint with the sprint goal and leaving the responsibility of committing to what they can achieve within the sprint to the team.
Maintaining the Product Backlog
If the product backlog is being used by the Product Owner as a depositary for ideas, wishes and requirements, it will rapidly become inflated and outdated. Any gems will be lost among the rubble.
It is intended that the Product Owner aligns the product backlog with the product vision and roadmap. The Product Owner is responsible for continuously working to refine and prioritise the product backlog. While the Product Owner may own the product backlog and the prioritisation, the backlog should be refined in collaboration with the development team, subject matter experts and stakeholders. If the Product Owner is not involving others, they risk the success of the team and the product. They will eventually damage the product by delivering based on their own desires, rather than a product that is developed based on business direction, customer needs, expert input, and ongoing collaboration.
Done is better than Perfect
What is the focus when delivering a product? If attempting to build the perfect product over a never-ending length of time, while not even realising the customer has moved on with their needs and desires, then odds are the Product Owner is not focused on first delivering a Minimal Viable Product (MVP).
Until you have something in the hands of your user, you have not truly delivered value. Therefore delivering something quickly that may be minimal, though viable, gives you that early understanding of what your customers really want, and how you can improve and build on it for the next iteration.
It is important to understand your product and your customers and then look to apply the Pareto principle (80/20 rule), with delivering 80% of value to your customers with 20% of your effort.
Talented Product Owners are first and foremost empowered by their leaders. They draw on that confidence as they gather customer insights, and collaborate with their stakeholders and the development team to truly understand the product vision, and build out a DEEP product backlog. Ownership of the product, teamed with pure passion for what they are delivering, puts them in a position to build a product that will eclipse their customers’ dreams.