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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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