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Product Owner Is a Bad Bad Idea

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I think that the product owner is the worst thing that Scrum has visited on the software world.

It is a bad bad idea! - Mary Poppendieck

Mary Poppendieck posits that the product owner role is a proxy in between people doing the work and people needing the job done, and this causes delays, misunderstandings and bloat in our software engineering process. Poppendieck, the author of many books on Lean in Software, made this claim in a talk on July 15th, entitled Developing a Lean Mindset in which she discussed how a lean mindset was an effective pattern for providing a rapid response to change.

Mike Cohn, author of User Stories and Agile Manifesto signatory, retweeted his article covering the same topic on June 11th. He wrote Is It Time to Do Away with Scrum’s Product Owner Role, asking "Teams are expected to collaboratively make technical decisions so why not do the same for product decisions?"

Cohn and Poppendieck appear to agree that we should be distributing the responsibility for product decisions back into software engineering teams as a joint responsibility, like we already do for testing and architecture is a preferred way to improve our ability to build software and respond to change faster.

Cohn says this would require developers to "move beyond thinking of themselves as code monkeys." Poppendieck discusses this as moving back to the original engineering mindset which she says software lost in the 1990s. Many others are raising similar concerns about the product owner role, although the analysis of root cause and potential solutions varies immensely.

In The Great Product Owner Challenge, Nigel Thurlow argues that product ownership is not broken; it's how the role is executed within an organisation and how organisational inertia prevents it from making the changes necessary.

A selection of titles from other commentators who have addressed the issue include:

Most articles cover how to create good product owners, but reveal the difficulty that many are having with trying to deliver well using the role.

In one research article tweeted by Jeff Sutherland, founder of Scrum, the authors also highlighted the tendency for roles to have been warped by organisations corrupting Agile to fit their traditional structures. Why you can't Scale:

In summary, there is an emerging theme in the literature, namely that the original balance of scrum master, product owner and team roles are being adapted, conflated, and possibly corrupted, to suit the needs of organizations transitioning from waterfall...

Summarising a variety of pieces, we can see that as we scale Agile and its usage becomes the norm, the product owner role may not be such an obvious need or an obvious fit to the situation. InfoQ has covered many aspects of this complex role over the past 10 years, including: team collaboration from Henrik Kniberg’s thoughts; product owner patterns and scaling with the product owner; the breadth and depth of the discussion has continued to multiply. All organisational design involves complexity of context and complex human interactions. The question of whether the product owner role is good or not clearly depends on a lot of factors including team maturity, organisational maturity, organisational type, organisational complexity, and the product owner themselves.


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Community comments

  • Inmates running asylum

    by Kelvin Meeks,

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    Both ideas are extremes of the wrong approach.

  • No single answer

    by Clinton Keith,

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    People need to realize that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every culture. Mike Cohn’s article does not demand we do away with the PO role, but was meant to spark the discussion. Mary Poppendieck has said that Scrum is a good “starting script” for agility.

    Many teams don’t know how to effectively communicate with customers. A PO role is essential for them. That doesn’t mean they can’t grow to assume the responsibilities themselves. Too many Scrum adopters get fixated on the roles and not the responsibilities.

  • Don't blame the framework on your bad Agile

    by Brian Rain,

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    It's a poor craftsman who blames the tools on the quality of their work. Usually, when I see these articles or have discussions about similar topics, the deeper dive shows a poor implementation of a framework. The Product Owner isn't just a role; it's a set of skills and practices that Scrum says are better centralized to a person than distributed to a committee. If the framework is giving you trouble, it's likely because the framework is pointing out flaws in your Agile or organization.

    I appreciate the Poppendieck's contributions to Agile and their role in its history. However, when I hear them comment on current trends, it reminds me of old professional American football players talking about the times when helmets weren't required. Just like football, Agile has evolved well past their place in history, as honored a place as it should be.

    I would like to see a Scrum implementation with process efficiency over 25% and the ability to release increments into the markets after each Sprint still penning articles about the Scrum roles.

  • Product Owner

    by Nadeem Khan,

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    In my experience, the role is essential. The actual users are varied and many, and they have no time for repeated interaction with the scrum team, since they are never released fully for the project. Also, no user story is owned by a single person or department. Product Owner has a huge and critical role to play for the project's success. Ofcourse, they should get training before starting on the role.

  • Yes and No

    by background worker,

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    The best product owner in my case was not called a product owner and was a technical team lead... yes, this person took a hit on the fluff around story telling what we were up to and involved me in product decisions to the point where I felt we were equals.

    The worst product owner in my case sat in an ivory tower and even dictated technical decisions behind closed doors - because they used to 'code'.

    I agree probably most product owners are a bad idea.. especially those calling themselves a product owner. Needless to say I did not complain but found another job a few weeks later.

  • Re: No single answer

    by background worker,

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    Spot on. My take away is PO's are good for newbie teams but a crutch for high performance seasoned devs who want to cut through the red tape and build for the customer.

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