Can a team survive without a Product Owner ? Or with a ghost PO.

As you probably know it already the Product Owner is an essential link for a Scrum Team to deliver high value product increments to the business. This is no secret that a good PO can drastically improve the amount of return on investment of a project. And this is probably one of the most important aspect of the job. This role is clearly a full time job and requires a lot of various skills but sometimes companies and people are not ready for that. Even in the Scrum guide the first line of the Product Owner definition is opening the door by saying :

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.

We won’t talk here about the skills required for the job or even try to be exhaustive about what the job is about as this is probably another very long post. Instead I will expand about this particular sentence in the scrum guide definition. Doing so I will tell you about how some of the teams and companies I worked for dealt with those various situations.

We have a PO but he does not give/have enough time for the role

This is what I call a Ghost PO. Usually this scenario happens because somewhere people decided to drop someone from the business in a PO role. That can be a very good idea but a decision like that must be supported with specific dispositions. First this person must be clearly train to be a PO. This can be done internally with coaches or externally in a 2 days training at least. Then the PO must have the time to spend with the team, working on the backlog, be available, talk to stakeholders, gather information from as many people as possible, etc. All of that to effectively give a chance to the project to be a success.

However in my opinion taking someone out of a business role can also be a problem for the company. We are supposed to create value and we are removing someone from a place where he or she is already creating value. That’s why we should really consider the PO role as a new job fulfilled by people with the knowledge and the skills that won’t jeopardize the actual company’s business.

Another scenario is when the PO has the time but is not giving time. That can be fix by the team itself in many ways. Use retrospective to talk to him and let him understand he is an important part of the team. The Scrum Master must talk to him and coach him to really act as a PO. If he is not in the same office space, make him move next to you. Do everything you can to make him feel he is not external to the team and his opinion matter.

How the team can react in those circumstances

Somewhere in the company managers gave a budget for your project to exists. So even if you don’t have the PO you deserve there is a chance to get support to get out of that situation. Your Scrum Master has to take his pilgrim stick and find support for the team.

Work on team’s external communication. Invite as many people as you can in the sprint reviews, draw interest around your project. Keep in mind you need to find people to give you feedback on what you are doing. With more feedback it will be easier to steer the product in the right direction and this is what matter the most after all. Of course this won’t be a peaceful journey and you will have to triage feedback in some ways. But if you want your project to be a success and be happy with what you are doing every day you have to move out your comfort zone. If not you will just have worked for another project that won’t go live.

From what I have seen in situations like that some teams are prepared for this scenario by having a lot of knowledge and skills shared in the team. We are all Developers but some of us have very strong knowledge in the domain we are working on. The sum of the team’s expertise shouldn’t be underestimated and should always be developed as much as possible.

To resume I would say there is no magic and having experienced professionals in the team will help a lot. So Scrum On !

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