Scrum Project’s Biggest Risk – Where did the Product Owner go?

Today I continue my series dealing with Scrum.  I mentioned in previous Scrum posts that I appreciated the opportunity to talk in depth with Don McGreal, VP of Training at Improving Enterprise about his lessons learned as a Scrum master. One comment of Don’s that caught my attention because its truth is reflected in my experience as a project manager and project consultant is that the biggest risk to project outcome is the involvement (or lack thereof) of the client or product owner.  (How many PMs have had the “disappearing sponsor/stakeholder” experience before?)

I have had customers who create a product vision and a set of top level requirements and then disappear from interaction with the team (and sight) until the semi-annual review. Don reported on a product owner who did not reappear for a year during development. Scrum success depends on an actively involved product owner. “If the Product Owner is ineffective then the Scrum team will be too,” states the introduction to an Improving Enterprise LLC product owner training class.

10 Tips for getting better customer/product owner involvement

  1. Explain the essential role of the product owner in having a successful development beginning with your first interaction. Use examples that the owner or client can relate to rather than focus on methodology or abstract requirements. All of us have stories of success and failure that can be tied directly to the interaction with the client. Use some of those examples to persuade. Your goal is to help the customer or product owner believe that their active involvement is not a punishment, but an opportunity to make sure the final product meets their needs. The product owner must set the requirements for each sprint. Cast the product owner as a hero.
  2. Train product owners who are new to their role. No one is born knowing how to be an effective product owner. Training and feedback help improve skills and the resulting development. Not to mention that you might actually create a rapport with the product owner that helps improve the overall communications.
  3. Put customer involvement in the contract. This is not a threat to hold over their heads, it is a demonstration of the importance of owner involvement in developing a product that is useful and meets needs.
  4. Get users involved in requirements generation and testing. Because Scrum development is broken down into many sprints, each with a deliverable, product owners or users have many opportunities to interact with the development team. Remember, under the Scrum framework, the product owner “drives or influences” the tasks for each sprint by creating and maintaining the product backlog (which is ordered).
  5. Do prototypes, demonstrations or iterative deliverables. Each Scrum sprint produces a working, bug-free piece of software (Or other demonstrable artifact). Having the users or product owner review and test at the end of each sprint allows developers to confirm that they are creating what is needed or make corrections before there is too much investment in a feature or process.
  6. Tie features to the product vision. Each sprint review should begin by reiterating the final product vision and show how that sprint’s work is part of the whole solution.
  7. Explain decisions and trade-offs. A product owner sets the task priorities for the next sprint. Developers must help the owner in selecting how much can be accomplished during a sprint by explaining technical requirements and challenges.
  8. Communicate. Keep the product owner informed. Make sure they are invited to the daily Scrum “15 minute” status meetings and are participants in the sprint planning and review sessions.
  9. Let the client drive. If product owners do demonstrations of the product developed-to-date during management reviews, for example, their sense of ownership increases as does their feeling of accountability.
  10. Give the product owner credit for their valuable contribution to the project’s success.

One Response to “Scrum Project’s Biggest Risk – Where did the Product Owner go?”

  1. New PM Articles for the Week of February 27 – March 4 « The Practicing IT Project Manager Says:

    […] Bruce McGraw identifies the biggest risk on a project using Scrum: the disappearing product owner! […]


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