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Scrum Destroyed the Product Owner Role

When trying to implement Agile as a defined process, Scrum turned BAs or other roles into order takers with the title “product owner.” This undermines the entire value proposition of product management. The product owner should be the CEO for their product or product family, building, managing, and leading to ensure that the product or service under their charge meets the needs of the consuming audience.

In Build a Better Product Owner, we define four key capability areas needed for successful product ownership.

  • Vision
    • Vision correlates directly to value realization.
    • Ensure your product aligns to your organizational goals and priorities. Is that mission/vision actionable? If not, it’s a gap.
    • If the enterprise vision is clear, any level of employee can feel empowered to make decisions that align with business objectives/outcomes.
    • Business outcomes and capabilities drive value prioritization.
  • Leadership
    • You don’t have to have prescribed authority to be a leader. Leaders stand up for what is right over what is easy.
    • Are you giving the team every opportunity to shine/deliver their best work? The more teams use their superpowers, the greater their level of engagement, quality of work, and satisfaction.
    • The best leaders view their role as a facilitator to the team’s success.
    • Product owners make decisions. This mindset change needs to happen to make the product management model successful.
    • Leadership is the primary capability area with strongest cultural resistance and may not be a quick win.
  • Product Lifecycle Management
    • Creating an environment of learning. Agile isn’t fail safe, fail fast. It isn’t a failure when you learn and improve.
    • As long as product exists, the product management function is needed. At end of life, product management focuses on retirement and/or replacement.
    • Read Build a Better Backlog to better manage your backlog and include tech debt and operations priorities.
  • Value Realization
    • Develop KPIs that are aligned to the value proposition for each proposed change. Assess satisfaction through usage monitoring and end-user feedback.
    • Verify your product’s fit for purpose. Does it allow the end user to receive the value they expected?
    • Manage each product as if it was its own business with profit and loss center. Define the cost of acquiring a new consumer, onboarding internal users, and increasing product usage.
    • Create a simple business model to define the positioning and the value your product will deliver. Build an end-to-end financial model and plan for the product and all related operational support.

The biggest cultural shift for most organizations is that the product owner owns prioritization and sequencing decisions for all product changes. Product owners by proxy hinder your Agile transformation and the empowerment to be successful. In “Why we Need to Rethink Product Management in an Agile Practice,” posted on June 4, 2020, Anthony Marter does an excellent job highlighting how the Scrum definition of the product owner role does not provide the leadership and ownership needed to truly manage a product or service. As with low-value business analysis, product owners as order takers reinforces the cultural divide and belief that the delivery team does not own decisions or is not empowered to recommend improvements.

This can be further perpetuated in teams that rely solely on the Scrum backlog being updated in their delivery management tool (e.g. Jira, Azure DevOps, GitHub, Trello, Zoho Sprints, DreamCatcher Agile Studio, Rally, Yodiz, VersionOne, VivifyScrum). Even if the product owner is using a product management platform (e.g. Aha!, ProductPlan, Productboard, Airfocus, Targetprocess, ProdPad, Roadmunk), there is far more to product management than just backlogs and simple roadmaps (backlogs grouped into releases over time).

Our Take

  • The product owner must own the product and make the final decisions.
  • Good product owners consider their stakeholders and delivery team recommendations, but in the end, make the decision.
  • Don’t let the simplicity of Scrum turn your product owners into proxies and order takers. There is little value to a Scrum product owner who simply updates a backlog on behalf of the real product owner (stakeholder making the decisions).
  • Use the capability model in Build a Better Product Owner to overcome the limited role experienced in too many Scrum teams.

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