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Possible Solutions to the Single Product Owner Problem

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A Product Owner arguably, is one of the most demanding roles in Scrum. Product Owner is, single handedly responsible for the success of the project and is expected to lead the development effort by conveying the vision to the team. He is expected to help the team produce maximum business value. Is this expecting a lot from a single role?

Maroko Taipale suggests various reasons to justify that the single product owner model is broken. According to Maroko, following the product owner role by definition would lead to various inefficiencies.

He suggested that instead of having a single neck on the line, the teams should have a concept of customer development and product development in parallel. Customer development is a process of defining and understanding the user so that the right product can be built. Product development then kicks off with the feedback received from customer development and this process goes on.

There should be two teams who lead the above processes. The 'problem team', which is all about 'what' and the 'solution team' which figures out the best way to solve the problem. The problem team consists of sales, marketing, executives, technology, usability, quality folks and the solution team consists of cross functional development team and the same people from quality, usability and technology who are on the problem team.

According to Maroko, this collaboration works with various advantages,

Both teams try together to maximize the value. Problem team is trying to achieve this by figuring out who is the customer and what is a problem that is worth of solving. Solution team is providing transparency to the market feedback .. usually in form of solution based statistics.

The benefits include

  • Improved information and knowledge sharing
  • Better alignment towards the goal
  • Multiple views on customer's needs
  • Channel for constructive feedback
  • Multiple communication points
  • Shared team vision

Likewise, Roman Pichler suggested that as soon as a project grows from the realms of a simple project, there is need for more than one product owner. He suggested the use of a product owner hierarchy with a chief product owner.

Product owner hierarchies vary from a small team of product owners with a chief product owner to a complex structure with several levels of collaborating product owners.

Mike Cottmeyer acknowledged that the Product owner role is too complex to be filled by a single person in many circumstances and needs a team to deliver. According to Mike, instead of one person who fills in all these roles, it could instead be a Product Owner Team where multiple people coordinate together. The team could include

  • Product Manager- Works with stakeholders, identifies requirements and sets priority.
  • Project Manager- Maintains a view of the overall objectives. Manages resources, capital expenditures, external dependencies etc.
  • Business Analyst- Responsible for documenting acceptance criteria and documenting the conversations around the user story. Primary point of contact for requirements clarification during the sprint.
  • Designer- Prepares some screen shots, wireframes, etc.

Mike suggested,

The Product Owner Team must be relatively small and empowered, but have all the people necessary to serve the role of Product Owner for the team. This group must be able to decompose the product backlog according to the INVEST principles. This is a big job and usually implies that the Product Owner team has representation from at least: Product Management, Project Management, Architecture, Development, Quality, and Business Analysis.

Thus, there seems to be a general consensus that apart from relatively simpler projects, the single product owner model might not work in many situations.

What has been your experience?

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