Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage News Should the Product Owner Be One Person Only?

Should the Product Owner Be One Person Only?

Leia em Português

This item in japanese

There is an important conversation taking place on the ScrumDevelopment list regarding the role of arguably the most important member of the team - the product owner.   Jean Richardson started off the conversation with the following question:

I’m working with a customer that is new to Scrum. So far, they’re very eager. We had and extended lessons learned last week on a very tough 1 ½ project, and they see Scrum as the answer to their prayers. Their manager has read /Agile Project Management with Scrum/, and one of their team members is halfway through it.
However, the manager has asked for a meeting with me later this week regarding “who will be the Product Owner.” I think his team is pushing him to share that role among all of them—or at least 3 of them (himself and two others). So, my question is, how well does it work to share that role across two or more people. Does it ever work well? If so, what is required for it to work well? What kinds of things do you see happen?

This is, evidently, not an uncommon question or occurrence.  The majority of the advice fell into two camps:

Camp 1: You should only have one product owner.  For example, Dan Rawsthorne suggested:

I always have a simple answer to "who will be your product owner". I just ask "who are you holding accountable for success? Who has the bullseye on his back? That's your product owner." In my experience, the PO is usually anointed from the outside.

This brought up several interesting observations, one of which calling out an inconsistency in the way the product owner is treated and perceived:

However, doesn't this bring up an interesting dichotomy for Scrum? If the PO is the single ringable neck from the requirements/ROI perspective, why isn't there a single ringable neck for the team?
I ask because I've had numerous conversations with skeptics of Scrum who point out the lack of accountability in the team. While the team is responsible for becoming self managing, and ultimately getting done what needs to get done, there's no single neck to ring when they don't. I've seen teams struggle to become self managing. Some never do succeed. It's difficult to hold the whole team accountable, especially when many members are doing their best.

Camp 2: On the "it depends" front, George Dinwiddie's comment was exemplary:

Yes, this can work fine and spread the workload among the three. It can also be a disaster. I've seen both.

 Do they all share the same vision of the project? If not, what vision will the developers have?

Can all three work in the team room with the developers? If not, this is a red flag in my book.

Call all three make quick decisions together? If not, think what this will do to progress.

Can they "speak with one voice?" If not, which will the developers follow?

When they disagree, do they have a reliable way of resolving the conflict? If not, who will the developers follow?

To properly answer the question, there must be agreement on what the role and responsibilities of a product owner really are. Is it primarily a 'single wringable neck'? Are the responsibilities much more extensive such that they cannot be met in a large environment? What are your thoughts and experiences?

Rate this Article