The Product Owner – the grey eminence in SCRUM.

The Product Owner in SCRUM – the grey eminence.

When we introduced SCRUM we decided to “transform” project managers to scrum masters and turn the product managers into product owners. I talked already about how successful we were with the decision on scrum masters here. In this post, focus is on the product owner.

In the beginning, not too much changed for product managers – they still were very much focused on developing our web application – the product. They were utilizing their well-known toolbox of user testing, feature discovery, A/B testing, multi-variate testing, visual design, user experience and so on. The product backlog – one of the most important tools (according to literature) – was perceived as another list to keep up-to-date (or not).

I guess we managed to survive for roughly 2 sprints.

Where did we end? In chaos and anarchy.
The scrum masters felt accountable for the process, the framework, SCRUM. They took their job serious and the mechanics of SCRUM were easily implemented.
The product owners understood well the importance of their job – but were still occupied with getting the product management issues right. The backlog as the utmost guiding instance – the fundament of the roadmap and the release plan was simply not looked after.

Why? Well, product managers were not used to do thorough project management tasks. So far, it was okay for them to do their small-scoped planning for daily work. Now, SCRUM asks the product owner to fill the backlog, to prepare easy-to-understand stories, to get the stories into the right format to not receive 100-story-point-estimates, to do all needed lobbying with management, to inform the C-level people, to … well to take over leadership for their products. For product owners, the shift towards SCRUM was bluntly said – a shock. Product management, project management, ownership for the product business, politics, … quite a lot.

What happened? The scrum masters started to support the product owners with project management tasks – looking after the technics of longer-term project organisation. The product owners started to take over ownership for the previously mentioned tasks – firstly starting to get their product backlogs organized and cut down their stories. Then afterwards taking over responsibility from business perspective.

Where are we right now? Well, the ideal product owner is a copy of Steve Jobs – close to BEING the product. We’re still not there, however the product owners take their jobs really serious now and made quite a way to improve.

From an organization perspective, we start realizing that the product owner as the super-human being doesn’t exist at all. We think about introducing the split of having a product owner and a product manager again. The owner takes care of the organizational tasks – feeding the SCRUM process. The manager takes over ownershop of the product, the strategic development being in-line with business demand and defines the next steps to be taken by the team.

SCRUM is really an excercise! Especially living it in practice!

Lessons learned?

  • The product owner is one of the most important persons in the SCRUM / agile software development process. Be sure you pick the right people doing the job of the product owner.
  • Also, keep in mind that there might be a point in time where you need to split product owner and product manager!

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