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It’s Time to Redefine the Scrum Role of Product Owner

Are we expecting too much from our Product Owners?

I’ve read many descriptions of the role and the responsibilities for a Product Owner in Scrum. Some of those descriptions seem over the top and appear to expect too much from the role.

Comments like “willing to make hard choices” (ScrumAlliance.org) and “the single person responsible for whether a project sinks or swims” (Top7Business.com) seem excessive. We pitch agile software development as a self-organizing, team activity. So, why do we accept the definition of a powerful, single-person role on Scrum projects?

These role descriptions border on omnipotent. When I read them, it makes me think that someone is being setup to be blamed if the project fails. We see these kind of omnipotent descriptions for many job opportunities on the Internet.

Anyone who is not perfect, need not apply. If you’re perfect and the project fails, we’ll blame you.

No thanks. I won’t be applying.

Product Owner responsibilities don’t boil down to telling the team to “do this” and “don’t do that”. It’s much more like “let’s try this” and “let’s not try that”. In other words, the Product Owner is not making final decisions. He is deciding what to present to the business stakeholders and/or the user community for evaluation.

The stakeholders and end-users will make the final decisions. The Product Owner is more of an ambassador — someone who guides everyone involved toward a final decision.

It’s important to note that the Scrum Master and the team members have an obligation to speak up and make themselves heard. The Product Owner may want to include a software feature that is simply not practical within the context of the current release cycle. It is important that the team speak up and equally important that the Product Owner listen.

Defining omnipotent roles doesn’t lend itself to the kind of give-and-take dialog needed on complex software projects.

In the end, the development team will succeed or fail as a group. The Product Owner plays an important part but so does the Scrum Master and each member of the software development team. Anyone who doesn’t do their part can bring down the entire team.

So the next time you’re looking for a Product Owner, focus on leadership and negotiating skills not decision-making. And one more thing, don’t go looking for someone to blame before the project has even begun.

Updated: January 22, 2012 — 10:16 pm
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