Scrum sucks without solid Product Management

Product Owner Jan 6, 2020

Weak Product Owners spawn highly efficient Feature Factories powered by Scrum

Many Product Owners are catapulted into the role after Scrum is introduced at their company. First-time Product Owners come from many different departments: sales, marketing, project management, communication, and so forth.

As a result, few Product Owners who start have experience in the role. They get sent to a PSPO or CSPO training, if they are one of the lucky ones. Many companies believe this will set them up for success in their new role.

Obtaining a Product Owner Certification doesn’t mean they are ready for the job. At the end of the training they understand the Product Owner role, how it fits with Scrum and some Product Management basics. This is not enough. Understanding the Product Owner role is a fraction of your real job.

To understand more about what the Product Owner role entails, let’s first start with the definition of Scrum:

delivering products of the highest possible value.

The key part is in bold: delivering products of the highest possible value. This is where the Product Owner comes in. The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team.

But how does a Product Owner know and decide what is valuable to do? The Scrum Guide says the following about delivering value:

the relative efficacy of your product managementso that you can continuously improve the product

Scrum supports delivering products of the highest possible value, only if the Product Owner applies Product Management practices. When solid Product Management principles are applied Scrum can help make clear how efficient your Product Management techniques are.

You can use Scrum to haphazardly deliver valuable products. But if you want to deliver products of the highest possible value, that’s where Product Management comes into play.

Scrum is lightweight, by nature of being a process framework. It isn’t prescriptive on things you should do to deliver value.

Imagine you would split up delivering a product in three phases:

  • Discovery. Figuring out what problems we should solve for our users and how to solve them in a way to deliver the most value. Discovery results in a hypothesis of the expected value for users and the business. Experiments may also be performed to gain more understanding and test assumptions prior to building.
  • Delivery. Building the functionality in the product, once it’s clear what problem you should solve together with a rough solution direction.
  • Validation. Revisit what you’ve delivered to check whether it delivers the expected value. This may be the input for further rounds of Discovery or Delivery, or may result in killing the feature completely.

Relatively speaking, Scrum is quite prescriptive on the delivery of features, but not what you do before or afterwards: discovery and validation. Product Management is necessary to fill the gaps that are left by Scrum on how to do discovery and validation. Scrum doesn’t tell you how to apply Product Management principles to deliver more value with your product.

A Product Owner with poor or absent Product Management expertise struggles to deliver value with Scrum. When Product Management practices are absent or severely lacking, Scrum can’t help to improve them, as there is nothing to polish through inspection and adaptation.

The real job of a Product Owner is to be an expert in Product Management. Product Management is the foundation upon which Scrum rests to deliver products of the highest possible value.

What is Product Management?

Product Management concerns itself with building products that solve customer problems and make customers’ lives better, while meeting the needs of the business.

Product Management is challenging because it requires deep business understanding together with profound customer knowledge to make the right product decisions.

There is no recipe or formula that guarantees a successful product. Product Management can’t and doesn’t promise this. Just like there are no exact steps you can follow to guarantee a hit song, blockbuster movie or bestselling book.

The field of Product Management offers a structured and empirical approach that challenges assumptions, reduces risk and optimizes the probability of building a valuable product.

When companies have Product Owners weak in Product Management, they can only use Scrum to optimize shipping features more efficiently. They can’t fill the void that Scrum leaves you to fill. Absent Product Management together with Scrum spawns highly efficient Feature Factories.

Feature Factories may seem productive — they churn out a lot of features after all! But features are shipped without any assurance of delivering value. It’s the buckshot approach to delivering value: build a lot and something is bound to stick. All the features that don’t stick still end up in your product. Those unused features come back to haunt you. Your product incurs maintenance costs for features that aren’t pulling their weight, while they drag the overall value of your product down.

The Product Management to help discover what problems need to be solved, and how to arrive at a usable solution that meets business needs, is missing. Product Management is crucial to optimizing value delivery with Scrum. A Product Owner who is a novice in the field of Product Management will be incapable of elevating the value delivery process with Scrum.

Does it makes sense to hire Product Owners without experience in Product Management? In a similar vein: would you put a developer on a Development Team who has no experience programming at all?

Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are not enough to coach novice Product Owners

Some companies believe Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches should coach Product Owners. Scrum Masters can only coach a limited part of their job: the Product Owner role and how it fits with Scrum. This is just 10–20% of their job. Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches are not expected to be Product Management experts. It is much better to pair an inexperienced Product Owner with an expert in Product Management. A Product Manager who understands the theory and who has been in the trenches building products for many years.

You will get the best of both worlds this way. The Product Owner receives coaching from the Scrum Master or Agile Coach on the Product Owner role and how it fits with Scrum. The Product Management expert coaches them on their actual job: delivering value to users and the business through applying Product Management principles.

Product Owners must be experts in Product Management to beat the Scrum Feature Factory

Product Management is the foundation upon which Scrum rests to deliver products of the highest possible value.

Scrum is quite prescriptive when it comes to delivering features, much less so when it comes to discovery or validation of features. Product Management is necessary to fill the gaps that Scrum leaves for you to fill as part of the process framework approach.

Scrum needs to be powered by Product Management expertise in order to deliver the right product that delivers value to customers and the business. Scrum Teams with Product Owners poorly versed in Product Management will operate in Feature Factory mode. Their Scrum Teams will optimize for delivery of features, not for the delivery of value.

If you want to deliver products of the highest possible value: hire an expert in Product Management to take on the Product Owner role. If that’s not possible, at least pair the freshly minted Product Owner with an experienced Product Manager who can teach them the craft. Another option would be to enroll them in an extensive Product Management training program. An Agile Coach or Scrum Master is usually not enough, as very few of them have sufficient expertise in Product Management and experience building products.

Product Management is the motor that drives value delivery with Scrum. You can only beat the Feature Factory with solid Product Management practices. Product Management paves the way for Scrum Teams to discover better ways of delivering value to customers and the business. Only then can Scrum help deliver products of the highest possible value.