Agile pondering: Is it agile to have a “single wringable neck?”

nooseIn Scrum one of the named roles is that of Product Owner.  Some people have taken to referring to this position as the “single wringable neck” on a Scrum team.  This is because the Product Owner is ultimately responsible for the prioritized product backlog which the team uses as their to-do list to build the product.  If the Product Owner does a poor job then the resulting product will not meet customer needs.  That scenario leads people to believe the Product Owner should be held accoutable for the failure.

To me this is very short-sighted.  The Product Owner has a LOT to do without having this additional burden placed upon them.  Because I want to keep this blog entry short I will give 5 reasons why the “single wringable neck” concept has to be left behind:

  1. Product Owner’s normally do not have sufficient training to do the job well.  We often here of Certified Scrum Masters (CSM), but we don’t hear about Certified Scrum Product Owners (CSPO) nearly as much.  This is a shame.  If they are the single wringable neck, why not give them a fighting chance by giving them some training specific to their position.  I don’t care if the training is a certified training or not, so long as it is good, solid training.  A few months ago we had our Agile Product Management Boot Camp which is a great way to get this training.
  2. Some organizations isolate Product Owners in a way which does not allow them to interact with customers properly.  I’ve actually heard sales people say “We can’t have the product person talking to our customers – it would just confuse the customer.”  When I heard this I think my reply was “In other words they might tell the customer the hard truths?”  You can guess how the conversation went from there.
  3. Many organizations expect too much from their Product Owners.  Product Owners need to interact with the team and customers on a regular basis.  They also need to be doing other forms of market research.  They may need to attend trade shows.  They may be involved in Change Control Board meetings.  They may prioritize defect lists.  They may be helping the marketing department develop materials.  They may be creating nice charts and fancy reports for executives about how products are expected to perform.  They may…   The list can go on forever.  Please make sure your Product Owners have time for what is truly important.  Find other ways to accomplish the tangential items.
  4. Product Owners don’t get to understand lost sales.  If you are trying to create a product to grow your market share then finding out why you lose sales is CRUCIAL!  Lost sales is a huge potential source of product ideas.  Talking to current customers may help you maintain your market share, but it isn’t guaranteed to grow it.
  5. Product Owners ultimately report to someone else and that someone else sometimes makes inappropriate decisions.  Sorry to be so blunt, but this occurs more often than anyone wants to admit.  How can a Product Owner be held accountable if someone else ultimately pulls the strings?  Worse yet, the person in charge often doesn’t admit the errors were their fault.  This all falls in the category of sad but true.

As you can see, I don’t agree with the single wringable neck concept.  I believe a team creates products and all members of the team contribute.  A Product Owner may ultimately be one of the major contributing factors to failure, but it is rarely the only one.

Until next time I’m going to be Making Agile a Reality® by helping teams get effective training and coaching for all team members including Product Owners rather than concentrating on just one or two team members bringing information back to the team.

About Bob Hartman

Bob is founder of Agile For All and an agile trainer and coach. He never leaves home without his "NO" button.

Comments

  1. Esther and I were going back and forth on this earlier: http://twitter.com/estherderby/status/2030182875

    I’ve been backing off the Single Wringable Neck phrase sense then, and to be honest I think the PO and even the Customer ownership issues can be mitigated with empirical data baked into the apps. I touched on this a little bit today: http://7thpixel.net/blog/2009/07/23/technical-debt-vs-releasing-early/

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    -David

  2. Esther and I were going back and forth on this earlier: http://twitter.com/estherderby/status/2030182875

    I’ve been backing off the Single Wringable Neck phrase sense then, and to be honest I think the PO and even the Customer ownership issues can be mitigated with empirical data baked into the apps. I touched on this a little bit today: http://7thpixel.net/blog/2009/07/23/technical-debt-vs-releasing-early/

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    -David