Product Owner Anti-Patterns, Part 3: No Single Product Owner

In my earlier blog posts in this series, I shared with you the Absent Product Owner, and the Churning Backlog pattern. The next anti-pattern I would like to explore is No Single Product Owner.

What does No Single Product Owner mean?

This phenomenon occurs when the business organization does not allow or support single decision-makers as the Product Owner. Sometimes the subject matter experts or stakeholders start acting as product owners. This causes the team to thrash on the different decisions made or directions given by multiple product owners. The team will waste a lot of time and energy to decipher whose decision is correct, and eventually a team member will “act” as the PO and make final decisions, which may or may not align with the product vision, roadmap, or release plan. The person who eventually makes the final decision may incur excess cost to the final product by either specifying excess and/or incorrect functionality. In the worst case, these decisions may cumulatively change the overall product direction.

Common Root Causes:

  • The product is too complex or too large for one Product Owner to direct multiple teams and work with multiple product areas.
  • The organization believes the Product Owner is merely a part-time role, and multiple people can “fill in” as needed.

Smells:

  • During initial release planning, no single person can be identified as PO and determine the release date or scope.
  • Conflicting decisions are made by different stakeholders or domain experts.
  • Multiple stakeholders or domain experts attend Sprint planning and each one is “in charge” of one or more product areas.
  • Team members spend a lot of effort to get final answers from multiple people.
  • The project sponsor is a committee and some of the above smells occur.

Remedies:

Try the following for complex and large products:

  1. Divide the product into multiple product areas, each with its own backlog and Product Owner. If there is enough work to be done in each area, different product owners can own separate product areas.
  2. Have each PO will work with the team(s) on a full-time basis.
  3. Propose one person as the chief Product Owner, who in turn owns the overall ROI, and product releases.
  4. Create regular Meta Scrum meetings to coordinate between the POs and Chief PO.

chief product owner multiple product owners meta scrum

many teams many backlogs one backlog agile

Try the following for the PO as a part time role:

  1. Measure and summarize the amount of time and rework each team member when there is ubiquitous direction or decisions made by multiple POs. In the case of one team member act as PO proxy, also add in this time spent on preparing the backlog and clarifying questions for a user story.
  2. Present this objective data to the senior management and compare the cost effect of having a single PO vs. multiple POs.
  3. Propose moving to a single PO to set product direction, supported by the stakeholders/domain experts as his/her product definition team.

If none of the above options is satisfied, raise this as impediment to the organizational level.

product owner role agile

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