20 Product Owner AntiPatterns in Scrum That You Must Avoid
People spend years trying to understand the importance of good design patterns, buy books about the right practices of the industry but most of the time they forget about the antipatterns, this blog post explains some of the most common mistakes that organizations do about the role of product owners.
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Society changed and leaders need support in the way how they lead and design their digital product organizations, that is the reason why the ADAPT Methodology® was created, but now let’s get a deep dive into the Product Owner AntiPatterns.
No single Product Owner for one team
In the SAFe framework, you have two roles: Product Manager and Product Owner. The Product Manager is the one thinking more strategically way; the Product Owner is the one thinking more about the daily activities.
When companies go back to Scrum there is no more two roles, there is only Product Owner, but companies do not want to fire anyone, so they assign two product owners to the team, even if they still use the same mindset: assigning one person to the strategically part and another to the daily activities I see this as a failure.
I believe it’s tough to work with this scenario; you must have one single person responsible for the whole product, like a friend of mine used to say “one single neck”.
Companies must understand that is not possible to have this scenario and they must provide an environment where each team has one single Product Owner.
Interference with the daily work
I saw this happening in several organisations but mainly because of two significant causes. First, cause the Product Owner in his past was a typical project manager where he was chasing people to get a job done.
The second reason relies on the fact the Scrum Master is not active, and the Product Owner must step into and do a lot of the activities of the Scrum Master, taking the role too seriously ending up controlling and interfering more than helping.
In this situation is normal to see Product Owner taking a quite active role in the dailies, manipulating the normal process. Another problem that I see quite often relies on the fact of Product Owneers track what developers are doing.
I saw several examples of Product Owners talking directly with developers asking what they are doing because they are not assigned to any task. Now imagine how developers felt when suffering this kind of control.
I believe the solution for this case is to find a strong and experienced Scrum Master. An experienced Scrum Master understands quite well both roles (Scrum Master and Product Owner) and can coach the Product Owner to allow the team to take responsibility for their tasks.
One of the roles of Scrum Masters is to protect the team from intrusions, having a strong and experience strong master within the team will allow the team to remain isolated and protected from unwanted interferences, and at the same time will allow Product Owners to be coached on right behaviors.
Stories built around product layers
This is a tricky topic. Over the last months, I have been working with teams that cannot deliver as fast as they could if they would use other approaches. They made a quite typical mistake; they have user stories that are built around layers of the product.
As an outcome user stories are dependent on each other causing a lot of delays to deliver a product that can be usable by the customer.
In general, a good user story should be written covering all the layers of the product. Should be an end-to-end user story. The solution for this problem is the coach the Product Owner and the team about this.
For me works quite well when I explain to developers that do not matter if we deliver 200 back-end user stories when in reality the customer cannot use them without the front-end part. Below there is a picture from Ángel Medinilla that shows in a great way how stories should be built.
No projection of the product backlog
Usually, the Scrum Master produces burn-down charts showing how the sprint went. This is quite common, what is not so common is the Release/Program burn down or burn up. This is a quite common problem in many of the organizations where I worked for.
Not having this kind of information makes the life of Product Owner harder because it gets harder to know if the team is on track or not.
With this kind of information available, the Product Owner can take better decisions about the scope to deliver the product on time, bringing the biggest amount of value to the customer.
The solution here is quite easy. The Product Owner should build a product burn down/burn up exactly as the Scrum Master does, but instead of being focused on the sprint, the Product Owner focuses on the release. A possible example can be observed below.
Backlog is filled with a bunch of “Strings”, not proper user stories
This problem is by far one of the most commons that I observed during the last years. Most of the time the Product Owner does not write the stories in a proper format, he just writes few keywords, and that´s it.
The problem with this approach relies on the fact that everyone outside of the Product Owner head will not understand what the user story is about. And to be honest, I saw some examples where not even the Product Owner knew what he wanted to solve with some of the user stories that he wrote.
To point out the solution, I am using a blog post from Roman Pichler. “10 Tips to write good user stories“.
The Product Owner is underpowered and does not act as the guard of the backlog
I saw this situation happening in some of the companies where I worked. Unfortunately, companies do not realize how dangerous this is. In these companies, the Product Owner did not have the power to decide anything and managers could change the backlog as much as they wanted.
This situation leads the Product Owners to no longer care about the product. They started to not care about the ROI, and they completely lost all their entrepreneurial behavior.
Usually, this happens with traditional management, where they want to control everything that is part of the Product Backlog, not giving any freedom or trust to the Product Owner.
My experience tells me this situation is quite difficult to resolve because most of the time this problem comes from managers above the Product Owner.
In this case, the Scrum Master or the Agile Coach has a fundamental role to play. He is responsible for talking with the management (or with anyone else who is behaving in this way) and explaining how this behavior has an impact on the company and the quality of the product.
I have witnessed several situations where the Agile Coach was able to explain to Senior Management what was happening and was able to help management to change their behavior.
The Product Owner uses estimates to set deadline demos for clients
Here we have a typical problem that is common in people who do not understand the basics of software development. This is much deeper than Agile software development.
The people who do this do not understand how software development works, so their estimates are just an approximate calculation; they do not guarantee that everything will be done by a certain date.
A lot of people approach me telling me that sometimes we do not choose the release dates and we have deadlines to be met. Therefore, there is no way to behave in a different manner in this kind of setup; the customers just want to have their product.
For those who do not know me, I worked for a huge mobile manufacturing company for years, so I understand what dates set by the market means.
Every year we had Christmas sales where the phones needed to be out; there was no other solution, so how could we manage this? The answer is simple: follow basic agile principles.
The Product Owner must educate the client that after every sprint the team has got something to show (with this the Product Owner gets his demos). During the sprint demo/review, the client has the opportunity to provide feedback on what was delivered.
And more importantly, has the opportunity to select the most important things that are on the backlog, enabling the team to always deliver the most value to the client.
At the same time (and this is one of the most frequently forgotten practices), the Product Owner checks the overall release status using Releases Burn Downs.
This practice allows the Product Owner to know exactly where the team will land, and start a discussion with the client about what can be dropped in the event the team is not able to deliver on time.
If the client is not open to all these suggestions, the company should start to reconsider if the client is someone with whom the company would like to work in the future. The problems that will arise from future interactions will be so complex that the relationship will not benefit any of the parties.
The Product Owner is too busy for the team; he has too many teams
I see this problem too often, Product Owners who are completely overloaded with work: the overworked Product Owner
A Product Owner should not have more than two teams. Of course, this is a general rule, and it might be possible to have more, but if he/she has more than that, it can be difficult to give full support to the teams.
The Product Owner is too busy for the team. He spends a lot of time in meetings with clients
This case is a bit different than the previous one, but the result is the same (for the team). In both cases, the team does not have the support of their Product Owner, making the task of developing the right software difficult.
The job of a Product Owner is not simple; it´s a tremendous and complex job, sometimes the product is so complex that one single person might not be able to manage everything.
I’ve seen some companies that brought business analysts to the team; these people took the responsibility of talking with clients to see what the market needs, leaving the responsibility of the technical product to the actual Product Owner. I saw this technique in several companies, and it worked quite nicely.
The Product Owner Proxy
This person acts as a placeholder for the actual product owner. This can lead to delayed decisions or even conflicts. The author of Agile Product Management with Scrum, Roman Pichler, refers to a case where the PO was too busy to take the role. Therefore a company got a proxy PO.
In the end, there were various conflicts because the proxy PO was not empowered to make decisions and all decisions were supposed to be made by the official PO who was never available.
Each case is different, but as a general solution, I believe that we could try to use the same approach as in the first example. Having a business analyst within the team could help the Product Owner to get more time to help the team to deliver the right product.
Product owner community
This happens to companies that create a committee to be responsible for a product. When there is no one person responsible for the product, it can lead to delayed decisions. Often, most of the people involved want to reach an agreement between all parties, and this will lead to long meetings without any proper outcome.
This is a typical case of “too many chefs in the same kitchen”. This is quite similar to one of the problems that I raised above.
Each product should have only one Product Owner. My experience tells me if we have too many people responsible for a product we have none. Never assign more than one Product Owner to a product. If you have several products that are connected with each other, you might need to have a program.
In that case, you should get a Program Manager or a Chief Product Owner as some companies call it, but never more than one person responsible for a product.
The Product Owner sacrifices the quality of the product to ship the product faster
I see this happening quite often, especially when a Product Owner is under external pressure. Stakeholders push Product Owners to release the product faster, even if the quality is not the best.
Of course, this approach will damage the company over the long term; everyone knows that poor quality software will sooner or later create problems and damage the provider’s reputation.
This problem is quite serious and, in my opinion, is something that is part of the company´s culture (not caring about quality). The method I found most useful to reduce this problem is the presence of a Definition of Done.
A Definition of Done is a simple list of tasks defined by the team that represents all the activities that must be done before a story goes into production.
Without a Definition of Done, it´s easier for the Product Owner to push the team to cut corners; if this list is there, on the other hand, it´s possible for developers to show that a story is not done until all tasks that are part of the Definition of Done are completed. My experience tells me this helps to reduce the problem.
Confusing the Product Owner role with the Scrum Master Role
I saw this happen many times in companies where Scrum Masters were passive for a week or two. In this situation, Product Owners lack the necessary support from the Scrum Master, and they start to take care of all the activities inside of the team.
At some point, the Product Owner no longer knows what his role is, and what the Scrum Master role is. This causes a lot of confusion and, worst of all, conflicts and mistrust between the Product Owner and Scrum Master.
The solution here is quite simple, but not easy to implement at all. In this case, it is extremely important to get an experienced and strong Scrum Master. Great Scrum Masters can do their jobs well, but even more importantly, they can coach others in their jobs.
The Product Owner who expects a stretched commitment because “based on their experience it shouldn’t take that long.”
It is quite common to see this behaviour from old school project managers, where commitments were almost forced by project managers or stakeholders. Another possible cause lies in the fact that Product Owners are ex-tech leads or architects.
In this situation, the team is dealing with someone who has great technical skills and who expects the team to solve the issues in a faster way.
In both situations the Scrum Master’s job is quite important; he must protect the team. He must explain to the Product Owner that the team owns their estimates. They are the ones deciding how much it takes to deliver that amount of work and there is not much he can do.
Being Product Owner because they’re a department lead/manager.
In some companies, the Product Owner role has some semblance of power, and many people will try to grab this position even if they do not have any interest in the product itself. They use this position as a platform to increase their political power.
As you can imagine, most of the time the outcome of this is poor and lacking in quality, driving everyone to frustration.
In this case, I truly believe there is not much that I can suggest; management must understand that a Product Owner is extremely important for the company and only people who understand customers and the market can do a good job.
Assigning people to these positions who do not understand the market or the customers is a recipe for disaster. I can only suggest that management assigns people based on quality and not based on political interest.
The Product Owner who feels it is not their role to maintain the backlog or delegates all of the actual User Story writing to the team and SM
I did not see this happening too often (fortunately) during my career, but it does happen. This type of Product Owner thinks his or her job is just to dump ideas into the backlog and that someone else should be doing the boring job of transforming the ideas into stories.
This kind of Product Owner thinks that his job is too important to be spent on secondary tasks.
I believe the Scrum Master and the team itself have an important role here. Together they must explain to the Product Owner that the aforementioned is his job. They must explain that without a proper backlog the team cannot do their jobs.
The Scrum Master and the team must show the Product Owner that it is extremely difficult to do any work if the product backlog is not maintained. A good story must be clear, optimally written in the INVEST (Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Scalable and Testable) format with proper Acceptance Criteria.
The Product Owner who thinks a Scrum Master is just a project manager whose role is to pester people into doing their job
Sadly, there are still a lot of people do not understand anything about human behavior. There are a lot of people who still think that punishments and pressure work quite nicely to motivate people.
A lot of these Product Owners still believe that people are lazy and need project managers to keep them in line, and of course, the Scrum Master fits perfectly into this job (according to their point of view).
The solution here is not easy to achieve at all. I truly believe this has more to do with mindset than with any agile process. I would suggest taking this Product Owner to a good agile training session to make sure that he understands what the roles are in Agile software development.
To complement this, I would take him to a good training session about intrinsic motivators to help him understand what drives people to do a great job. If he would not like to attend any of these training sessions, maybe give him the book Drive by Daniel Pink.
Hopefully, he will then understand that punishment or pressure will never motivate people.
The Product Owner who refuses to choose between five top priorities
I see this quite often; the Product Owner calls the most important story a Must, then there appears another story he says is more important, they become a Must-Must story, and so on. This clearly shows that the Product Owner does not understand what the single most important thing that must be achieved during the next sprint is.
Having the teams working on several important issues is a dangerous factor. Not too long ago, some of my teams were working on different goals to be achieved in a single sprint. The result was poor, there was no focus, and while everyone worked on everything, the teams constantly failed to achieve their goals.
Here it is quite important for the Product Owner to understand what the most important things are that must be delivered to the customers.
Product Owners must understand the team cannot deliver everything at the same time, so they really must understand what is the top priority that should be achieved during the next sprint.
When we applied this rule in some of my teams, teams got extremely focused, and they started to deliver much more stories per sprint. But more important than that, they started to deliver fully implemented features that could be shipped to the customer.
Before, the teams were delivering a lot of things, but none of their features was ready, blocking the release to the customers.
The Product Owner who insists on architecting the solution design
I mentioned above that sometimes the Product Owner is an ex-architect or an ex-tech leader. As a result, it’s normal to have this kind of anti-patterns. The Product Owner wants to be responsible for the architecture of the product, driving the team crazy.
The Scrum Master and the team are responsible for “How”: How the product is made.
The Product Owner who does not regard himself as a team member
I do not see this Product Owner Antipattern too often, but several people have mentioned it to me. Therefore I am adding it to my list. As the name suggests, the Product Owner does not feel himself part of the team. He feels that he should only be responsible for delivering the stories and nothing more.
As you can imagine, the cooperation between the team members and Product Owners will not be the best, and at some point, the collaboration will become extremely hard.
The Scrum Guide says:
“The Scrum Team consists of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master.”
Just because the Scrum Guide says that, of course, there is no guarantee the Product Owner will consider himself part of the team—But, I think this could be a good start nevertheless.
On top of this argument, the team and Scrum Master could explain to the Product Owner they are not able to do a fantastic job unless the Product Owner starts to become more connected to them. This could be a nice topic for one of the Retrospectives.
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