Will the real Product Owner, please stand up?

Product Owner Feb 1, 2021

Is the Product Owner like the monster of Loch Ness — it only exists in our imagination?

I’ve worked at many different organizations, from start-ups, scale-ups to enterprise organizations. I regularly have conversations with many different companies who ask me for advice on how to better implement Scrum to deliver more value.

This experience has provided me with insight into how many companies have adopted Scrum. I notice vastly different companies are often dealing with the same problems.

One problem keeps reappearing in conversations: the challenge of implementing the Product Owner role as envisioned in the Scrum Guide.

An artistic depiction of Nessie by Ad Meskens

What I’ve come to realize in all of my encounters with different implementations of Scrum: I’ve never spoken to or heard of anyone being a real Product Owner.

Is the Product Owner role like the monster of Loch Ness, only existing in our imagination? Is it something we can only talk, read and fantasize about, but will never witness in the real world?

Does that sound crazy to you? Please allow me to elaborate.

Is appointing one Product Owner to rule them all realistic?

The Scrum Guide claims the following two things:

“For Product Owners to succeed, the entire organization must respect their decisions.” — Scrum Guide 2020
“The Product Owner is one person, not a committee.” — Scrum Guide 2020

Keeping these two things in the back of my mind, I’ve never met a real Product Owner.

I’ve never met that illustrious single person who owned the complete product with all their decisions being respected. And based on my personal experience as a Product Owner, I don’t think these expectations are realistic.

To put it bluntly, when you introduce the Product Owner role, you are appointing a Product Dictator. The ‘Owner’ part is there to clearly indicate you have the final say. You are there to ‘own’ the product. You are not there to follow orders and do what others tell you to do.

A freshly minted Product Owner is bestowed with the ability to overrule anyone in the whole organization regarding product decisions, no matter their position on the organizational chart. By making someone the Product Owner, you basically make them judge and jury on everything product.

How do you decide who becomes the Product Owner?

Imagine you go to a SaaS company with a single product, and you tell the CEO the following: “We‘ve decided to implement Scrum. Because of this, we need to appoint someone as the Product Owner. Whoever we will choose to take on the responsibility will have more to say about the product than you. Do you have anyone particular in mind?”

Do you believe that conversation will go over well? What do you think the CEO will say?

Roughly speaking, I believe there will be two different flavors of responses you can expect:

  1. “Well, if you’re looking for someone with that kind of power, then I can only think of a single person: me. Oh, do I need to sit in refinement with all of our 10 teams working on the same Product? That doesn’t sound appealing at all, I’ve got better things to do.”

OR:

2. “Hell no, we’re not going to implement Scrum. I’m not willing to let go of the reins and give someone other than me more control over the product.”

How many companies can you name where the CEO is the Product Owner for their Product?

At hardly any companies, this is the case, but it does make a lot of sense when you examine the Scrum Guide. Dave West, who is the CEO and Product Owner of Scrum.org, is the only one who comes to mind.

How many companies can you name where the Product Owner really has the final say over all product decisions? And if they don’t have the final say, are those people still a Product Owner? Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of people who claim the title of Product Owner, without owning any product.

What are all these Product Owners in title doing instead of being a real Product Owner?

Product Whisperer: the reality of being a Product Owner

In practice, I see multiple Product Owners operating on the team level while working together on the same product. These Product Owners are component, feature, or module owners at best. Whenever they want to work on something, they need to negotiate with stakeholders, the leadership team, and other Product Owners. Perhaps even with Product Managers.

Product Owners only get things done, by influencing without authority, similar to what a Scrum Master needs to do.

Of course, now you can ask the question, what is your definition of a product? Maybe my definition of a product is wrong, and all these feature or module owners are really Product Owners.

But even if you’d make the case that their small part of a product can be seen as a separate product, then I’ve never met Product Owners with total control.

A Product Owner never exists in a vacuum. There are always powerful stakeholders you need to deal with. To make progress and get things done you need to influence people higher-up to ensure we can work on what’s most valuable. There always is that political pet project that must happen.

In theory, having the final say sounds nice. But in practice, if the leadership team you’re often not a part of wants you to do something you disagree with, then you can only try to influence them.

Nobody cares about the ‘Owner’ part in your title, you’re just a product straw man with a fancy title who needs to do their bidding. Or do you want to be stubborn and risk the relationship with members of your leadership team? It’s much more lucrative to do what they want to ensure you will still be considered for that raise or promotion.

Another challenge for Product Owners is lack of time. Most Product Owners struggle the moment they have more than one team under their wing. Companies then either spread the responsibility across multiple Product Owners or introduce a separate Product Manager role that tells the Product Owner what to do.

This leads me to ask the following questions: are most Product Owners just Product Whisperers? Is the success in our role primarily determined by our ability to influence dominant stakeholders? Is it realistic to expect a whole organization to give control to a single Product Owner?

Is expecting to have a single Product Owner for your product delusional?

Based on my personal experience, it isn’t realistic to expect companies to accept the appointment of a Product Dictator. In practice, this happens rarely. All Product Owners I’ve met are Product Whisperers who can impact the product’s direction by sole virtue of the strength of their influencing skills.

I argue that the Product Owner role as depicted in the Scrum Guide is atypical. It’s something unusual you rarely see in practice. Should we then keep adhering to the theory or alter the theory to better deal with reality? Is it time to inspect and adapt, like it is written in the Scrum Guide?

I’ve met exceptionally strong Product Owners who are greatly able to influence the direction of the product without having full authority on paper. But is this something bad? Do products really need a dictator to be successful?

Compare it to the Scrum Master, who doesn’t have the final say over how a Scrum Team decides to use Scrum. The Scrum Master has accountability over the Scrum process, but a Scrum Master can’t force a team to change if they refuse to. This is just like the Product Owner role in practice. They can’t say no to every stakeholder and force the Scrum Team to always works on what they consider important and nothing else.

In practice, this is how the Product Owner role is implemented when you talk to companies who use Scrum:

  • There are always many Product Owners working on the same product. Scrum, or at least their implementation of Scrum, makes it impossible for a single Product Owner to handle multiple teams working on the same Product. Some companies opt for introducing a separate Product Manager role to handle the workload of Product Owners, which is a worse solution introducing more problems.
  • Someone at the top of the food chain, like the CEO, Chief Product Officer, or Head of Product, is closest to the idealistic representation of the Product Owner as it is present in the Scrum Guide. But even then, this person never exists in a vacuum and has to deal with other powerful stakeholders who can influence the direction of the product as well.

A Product Owner won’t be effective if they attempt to force all Scrum Teams to work on something that isn’t supported by other stakeholders in the organization. The Product Owner is a servant leader for the product, who leads by giving direction instead of relying only on instruction.

Let me know if your experience is different or if what I’m writing rings true to you as well. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do think it’s time to inspect and adapt the Product Owner role. In theory, it might work, but in practice, it doesn’t.

Now a question to you: will the real Product Owner please stand up?

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