Agile insights from LitheSpeed

Scrum Thoughts: Empowered Product Ownership

By Luiz “Q” Quintela

  • The obsession that I see in many places about velocity and increasing velocity and ignoring everything else.
  • The considerable amount of “dark work” and waste that is produced.

I am sure that you can think of many more…

Of course, we train and coach the teams and the Product Owner is part of the team. However, I see a lot of focus on the how side of Scrum and not so much on the what. The team gets really good at focusing on how to get work done as time goes by. That is after all why we strive to have co-located and stable teams. However, the product ownership is still lacking.

I have seen countless teams that are high performing and output high quality work but that work has little business value and includes lots of features that nobody uses. Waste anyone? Sure, we love waste! Don’t we?

Consider the lack of empowerment commonly seen in Product ownership.

How many Scrum Masters and teams are constantly asking the Product Owner questions and expecting decisions only to hear: “I need to ask the <insert the role or person here> what they want to do.” Decision delay, yes, we excel at that. Bad, and it happens when we do not have Product Owners that are; empowered, decision makers, available and able to use autonomous authority!

I have been lucky later by having organizational support to train Product Owners in how to perform their jobs beyond knowing Scrum basics. The results been great in just a few months. Just yesterday, they were learning how to coordinate via a MetaScrum on a Scrum@Scale training class. Today, half way thru the day, during a class break they were discussing MetaScrum meeting times.

Meanwhile, in other departments, I see teams being trained and getting Product Owners assigned to them that don’t even know how to prioritize a backlog. Did I miss something or are we doing this backwards? Shouldn’t we have trained the Product Owners earlier?

I have been teaching, mentoring and coaching people about Scrum for a while. The obsession with velocity is there, unfortunately. I got someone “surprised last Monday because they were cheering their velocity gains. Yes, indeed velocity gains are great!

However, the great gain was dismissed quickly after a couple queries showed that the team was picking up low value stories to bring the velocity numbers up. There are lots of things that are wrong in that picture. That begs the question whether the Product Owner was even aware of the business value of those backlog items. I doubt it, because it was proxy PO.

Let’s not forget the Scrum Master in this picture. But I have a hunch that the SM also got into let’s get the velocity way up mode…

Novice Product Owners should be trained properly and I seldom see that. We tell Scrum Masters to support their PO. All Scrum Masters I known do their best to. However, how many Scrum Masters know how to use visualization, collaboration and validation of assumptions or how to do product interviews? Consider boards, preferably physical ones for making work and evolving product visible. I would also recommend the Lean Canvas as a tool that all Product Owners must know and use.

In my experience, it is clear that we need to dedicate more people, resources and time to training, mentoring and coaching POs. Empowering Product Owners decreases waste and dark work and creates output that meets business outcomes. This will also allow teams to focus on and improve the creation and delivery of better products with features that users actually want.

Get to know Luiz here.