Product Owner on a Balance Beam

Pitfall of Scrum: Product Owner Doesn’t Show

The Product Owner is a full member of the Scrum Team and should be present at all Scrum meetings (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrums, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective). As well, the Product Owner should also be available during work time. Of course, the PO also needs to work with stakeholders and might be away during that time, but these discussions should be scheduled outside of the team’s meeting times.

In one case with a team I was coaching at Capital One, the Product Owner didn’t show up for the Sprint Review and then didn’t show up for the Sprint Planning meeting. The rest of the team decided to delay the start of the Sprint until the Product Owner did show up. The director-level manager of the team, a deeply insightful individual, insisted that all team members take paid days off until the Product Owner was ready to attend the Sprint Review… kind of like a mini-strike. It only took two days for the Product Owner to clear his schedule to attend the Sprint Planning meeting.

Product Owner as Scrum Team Member

The Scrum Guide defines the membership of the Scrum Team as follows:

The Scrum Team consists of a Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team…. The team model in Scrum is designed to optimize flexibility, creativity, and productivity.

As a member of the Scrum Team, the product owner should have the same level of commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect (the five Scrum values) as any other Scrum Team member. The Product Owner needs to collaborate actively with the Scrum Team. One way to gauge the involvement of the Product Owner is in the Sprint Review. If the Product Owner is giving feedback to the rest of the Team in the Sprint Review, it’s too late! The Product Owner should never be surprised by the product increment shown in the Sprint Review. Instead, the Product Owner should be leading the discussion to get feedback from customers, users and other stakeholders during the Sprint Review.

Being Away from the Team

There are some interesting exceptions to the Product Owner being present. Here are some of the most common:

  1. The Product Owner needs to be away from the team to work directly with customers, users, sales teams, marketing, customer service people, etc. This work is essential for making sure that the Product Backlog contains the most up-to-date information every Sprint. This time away should normally be scheduled outside of the Scrum meeting times.
  2. The Product Owner may need to travel to meet with customers and be away from the Scrum Team for an extended period of time.
  3. Of course, like any other team member, the Product Owner can and should take vacation and may be ill from time-to-time. This may seem trivially obvious. What is not obvious is that it often helps the team to leave another team member with temporary responsibility to fill in for the Product Owner. This temporary fill-in should not be someone from outside the team.

Special Case: The Daily Scrum Meeting

The latest version of the Scrum Guide also puts the Daily Scrum meeting in a special category. The meeting is for the Development Team (the subset of the Scrum Team that excludes the ScrumMaster and the Product Owner). Former versions of the Scrum Guide and other official Scrum documentation have changed this rule in various ways. As a personal comment, I believe this is a serious internal contradiction in the definition of Scrum. If the Scrum Team is self-organizing, then the Daily Scrum should include the ScrumMaster and Product Owner. I have seen this work successfully. The Scrum Guide says nothing about other people observing the Daily Scrum. I strongly recommend that the ScrumMaster and Product Owner observe the meeting even if you wish to follow Scrum strictly and restrict their participation.

If you decide to allow the Product Owner to participate in the meeting, then the Product Owner should restrict their comments to changes in the Product Backlog that require the team’s help for refinement. For example, the Product Owner could report in the Daily Scrum as follows:

“Yesterday I met with Sanjay at Deal Maker Industries and he suggested that we add a feature to allow car manufacturers to ping various stakeholders about risks and options. I think that will mean adding several new user stories to the Product Backlog. I need help from the team to write and estimate the new PBIs. Today I also have a re-prioritization meeting with three key internal stakeholders. My only obstacle is that I still can’t get a meeting with Karen about the marketing of the features from our last few Sprints and I’m worried that will delay our next release.”

In this example, the team and the ScrumMaster are kept apprised of key developments at the product level and know that there will be some extra work during the day to work on Product Backlog Refinement. The Scrum Guide says:

Product Backlog refinement is the act of adding detail, estimates, and order to items in the Product Backlog. This is an ongoing process in which the Product Owner and the Development Team collaborate on the details of Product Backlog items. During Product Backlog refinement, items are reviewed and revised. The Scrum Team decides how and when refinement is done. Refinement usually consumes no more than 10% of the capacity of the Development Team. However, Product Backlog items can be updated at any time by the Product Owner or at the Product Owner’s discretion.

Balance in the Product Owner Role

Ideally, the Product Owner would spend an equal amount of time with their Scrum Team and with outside customers and users. The Product Owner is the key conduit of information from the market to the Development Team. Not being present with the Scrum Team can hinder this flow of information and cause quality problems and unnecessary rework. Again, the Product Owner should never be surprised in the Sprint Review.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.


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