The Role of a Product Owner (Part 3): Anti-Patterns

The Role of a Product Owner (Part 3): Anti-Patterns

windows in sporadic pattern

Part one of this series examined the responsibilities and characteristics of a product owner; part two looked at their daily activities during a sprint. This third post focuses upon common anti-patterns seen with the product owner role.

Here are my “dirty-dozen” product owner anti-patterns:

1. No Single Product Owner

Each Scrum team must have a single product owner. Multiple stakeholders are acceptable and usual, but one person must be identified and empowered in the role of product owner for the team.

Solution: Identify a single product owner for each team.

2. Inaccessible Product Owner

The product owner must be available to the team to answer questions whenever required so as not to reduce capability and lower morale.

Solution: The product owner must be present to support the team during development - aim for at least 50 percent availability.

3. Proxy Product Owner

When the real product owner is unavailable, and a proxy is appointed, then it is critical that they are fully empowered within the role. Proxy product ownership often leads to delayed decision making, conflicts in direction and an overall lack of trust within the team.

Solution: Engage the real product owner or fully empower a proxy. Additionally consider employing specialists to provide extra support.

4. Role Confusion

There are only three roles within a Scrum team - product owner, Scrum Master and developer. The Scrum Guide specifies each team role, following this guidance helps to avoid confusion and potential corruption of the framework. Additionally, the product owner should never be double-hatted as the Scrum Master.

Solution: The product owner should perform that and only that role. Also, note that the product owner is part of the Scrum Team and not separate to it.

5. Lack of Product Focus

The product owner’s focus must be on developing a successful product. When the role is confused as a managerial role it can attract political appointments and results in sub-optimal performance.

Solution: “The product owner is responsible for maximising the value of the product and the work of the development team” - The Scrum Guide 2016.

6. Inadequate Product Backlog Management

The product owner is responsible for creating and managing the product backlog. By evolving the product backlog during development, the product owner maximises return on investment and improves customer outcomes.

Solution: The product owner must maintain the product backlog so that the work is visible, transparent and ordered.

7. Poor Feature Slicing

Product Backlog Items should consist of vertical slices of end-to-end functionality. Solutions are developed and delivered incrementally from skeletons, prototypes, minimum viable products and minimum marketable products to fully featured products.

Solution: Create work based on the end-to-end value to maximise feedback and reduce risk.

8. Lack of Vision

The product owner creates and communicates the vision for the product based upon customer domain knowledge and an understanding of the development life-cycle.

Solution: Create a clear vision and communicate it to everyone.

9. Faster, Faster

Pursuing the speed of delivery over customer outcomes does not lead to long-term product success. Although shorter lead times (concept-to-cash) is great for feedback cycles, sometimes faster is just faster.

Solution: Focus on addressing customer’s needs with high-quality solutions, iteratively and incrementally.

10. Failure to Trust

Product owners must demonstrate trust in the development team in their words and interactions. Trust prevents poor practice such as:

  • Stretch Goals- Product owners identify extra work “in case the team finish early.” If the development team completes the planned sprint work early, they will ask the product owner what they would them to work upon next.
  • Development Interference- Micro-managing teams plus tracking and chasing each task performed. Self-organising teams require leadership and not management.
  • Estimates as Deadlines – The development team forecast the work to be completed within a sprint. This estimate can change and the product owner must take this into account.

Solution: Trust and support the development team to deliver.

11. Absent Governance

Scrum is not the absence of discipline; governance is still essential to maximise value and minimise risk. The correct outcome-based metrics are required in addition to stakeholder and risk management. Applied correctly, agile projects are lower-risk and more transparent to everyone involved.

Solution: Provide appropriate light-touch governance throughout development.

And we are done. “That was only eleven anti-patterns and not a dozen as you claimed” I hear you cry, well that is because we are agile and always finish early (wink, wink).

Hopefully you recognise some of these patterns and can avoid some of the others.

You have to learn from the mistakes of others; you won't live long enough to make them all yourself.”

- Eleanor Roosevelt (quote attribution is actually unclear, though Mrs. Roosevelt is the best match)

In the final post of this product owner series, I will focus upon the pragmatic considerations of the role.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments below.


Peter Hyde (CSP, CSM, CSPO, SA) is an enterprise agile coach who resides in West Sussex, UK.

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