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The Life and Times of a Dev Yes, we're really that weird

Good Product Owners will help the team be the best that they can be.  Bad product owners will mess with the team and won’t care about the team.  If you’re a product owner, seek to do good and avoid bad behavior at all costs.  Remember, this is for YOUR benefit and you have much power given to you.  Use that power wisely.

Scope Creep

The product owner has several tools at his disposal to inject scope into an iteration.  First, the product owner can use defects to inject scope.  To do this, they’ll tell the team what functionality that they want to see in a feature.  Then, after the feature is developed, the Product Owner will decide that they don’t really like how the functionality behaves.  To change it, rather than creating a new story, they’ll add a defect.  The functionality is correct, as designed, but the Product Owner doesn’t like it.  By creating the defect, the Product Owner destroys the trust that the team has of the product owner.  They may not be able to count the story, because the Product Owner changed the story in the iteration, and the team then ends up looking like they have low velocity for something over which they have no control.  This is bad.  One way to deal with this is to add “Product Owner Time” to the iteration.  This will slow the velocity, but then the ScrumMaster can tell stake holders that this time is strictly in place to deal with bad behavior of the Product Owner.

Another mechanism often used to inject Scope is the concept of directed development.  Outside of planning, stand-ups, or any other meeting, the Product Owner will take a developer aside and ask them to complete a task for them.  This is bad!  The team should be allocating all of their time to development.  If the Product Owner asks for a favor, then time that would normally be used for development will be used for a pet project of the Product Owner and the team will not get credit for this work.  Selfish product owners do this, and I typically see people who were “managers” do this behavior.  Authoritarian command and control development environments also see this happen.  The best thing that can happen is for the team member to report the issue to the ScrumMaster and the ScrumMaster to get very aggressive with management and the Product Owner to try and stop the behavior.  This may result in the ScrumMaster being fired, but if the behavior continues, Scrum is doomed.  This problem is especially bad in cases where the team member’s direct supervisor is the Product Owner.  I don’t recommend that the Product Owner or ScrumMaster have a direct report relationship with team members, since team members need the ability to say no.  To work around this issue, team members need to say no.  If that fails, team members need to add extra time to the iteration to deal with the scope creep injection and accept the lower velocity.

As discussed above, another mechanism for injecting scope is by changing acceptance tests after the work is complete.  This is similar to adding defects to change scope and is bad.  To get around, add time for Product Owner uncertainty to the iteration and make sure that stakeholders are aware of the need to add this time because of the Product Owner.

Refusing to Prioritize

Refusing to prioritize causes chaos for the team.  From the team’s perspective, things that are not important will be worked on while things that the team knows are vital will be ignored.  A poor Product Owner will often pick the stories for the iteration on a whim.  This leads to the team working on many different aspects of the product and results in a lower velocity, since each iteration the team must switch context to the new area of development.

The team will also experience confusion about priorities.  In one iteration, Feature X was the highest priority and had to be done.  Then, the following iteration, even though parts of Feature X still need to be completed, no stories to address them will be in the iteration.  However, three iterations later, Feature X will again become high priority.

This will cause the team to not trust the Product Owner, and eventually, they’ll stop caring about the features they implement.  They won’t know what is important, so to insulate themselves from the ever changing chaos, they’ll become apathetic to all features.  Team members are some of the most creative people in a company.  By losing their engagement, the company is going to have a substandard product because the passion for the product won’t be in the team.

Other signs that the Product Owner refuses to prioritize is that no one outside of the product owner will be consulted on priorities.  Additionally, the product, release, and iteration backlogs will be weak or non-existent.

Dealing with this issue is not easy.  This really isn’t something the team can fix, short of taking over the role of Product Owner themselves.  An appeal to the stake holders might work, but only if the Product Owner isn’t a “manager” themselves.  The ScrumMaster needs to protect the team and do what they can to either get the Product Owner to prioritize or have the Product Owner replaced.

Managing the Team

A Product Owner that is also the “boss” of team members is a Scrum team that is waiting to fail.  If your boss tells you to do something, failing to do that something can cause you to be fired.  The team needs the ability to tell the Product Owner NO.  If the product owner introduces scope creep, the team has a responsibility to tell the Product Owner no.  If the Product Owner tries to get the team to commit to more than they can accomplish in an iteration, the team needs the ability to tell the Product Owner no.

If the Product Owner is your boss and determines your pay increases, you’re probably not going to ever tell them no, and Scrum will likely fail.  The team can’t do much in this situation.

Another aspect of “managing the team” that often happens is the Product Owner tries to tell the team how to develop the stories that are in the iteration.  This is one reason why I recommend that Product Owners are NOT technical people.  That way, the team can come up with the tasks that are needed to accomplish the stories and the Product Owner won’t know better.  If the Product Owner is technical, the ScrumMaster will need to take great care to protect the team from the ScrumMaster changing how the team thinks they need to implement the stories.

Product Owners can also try to manage the team by their body language.  If the team says a task is going to take 6 hours to complete, and the Product Owner disagrees, they will use some kind of sour body language to indicate this disagreement.  In weak teams, this may cause the team to revise their estimate down, which will result in them taking longer than estimated and may result in them missing the iteration.  The ScrumMaster will need to make sure that the Product Owner doesn’t send such messages and that the team ignores them and estimates what they REALLY think it will take to complete the tasks.  Forcing the team to deal with such items in the retrospective can be helpful.


The team is completely dependent upon the Product Owner to develop features for the customer.  The Product Owner IS the voice of the customer and without them, the team will lack direction.  Being the Product Owner is a full time job!  If the Product Owner cannot dedicate daily time with the team, a different product owner should be found.

The Product Owner needs to attend every stand-up, planning meeting, showcase, and retrospective that the team has.  The team also must be able to have instant communication with the product owner.  They must not be required to schedule meetings to speak with their product owner.  The team must be the highest priority task that the Product Owner has.

The best way to work around an absent Product Owner is to appoint a new Product Owner in the team.  This person will be responsible for making the decisions that the Product Owner should be making and to act as the liaison to the absent Product Owner.  If the delegate Product Owner doesn’t have authority to make decisions for the team, Scrum will fail.  If the Product Owner is absent, the ScrumMaster should seek to have that Product Owner replaced by someone who has the time and ability to be a real Product Owner.

Making it Personal

Too often Product Owners will become convinced that their ideas are the ones that matter and that anyone who disagrees is making a personal attack on them.  Remember that Product Owners will inherently be at odds with many people, simply because they have the need to prioritize.  Others will frequently question prioritization because they only see part of the picture that Product Owners face.

Product Owners must have a thick skin and think egos.  If they don’t, they tend to make things personal, which causes them to become emotional and causes them to take actions that can destroy the trust that team members have in the Product Owner.

If a Product Owner is making things person, the best thing that team members can do is reassure them that its not personal, but be firm about doing what is best for the Company and for the users.  The ScrumMaster should also spend significant time coaching the Product Owner on how to not react emotionally and how to accept criticism without becoming defensive.


I’m sure there are other ways that a Product Owner can mess with the team, but these are the most common that I’ve seen.  I would encourage all Product Owners to seek to be a good Product Owner.  If you find yourself behaving in any of the bad product owner ways, change your behavior today!  Your team will thank you.

Remember, being Product Owner is very difficult!  Product Owner is one of the most difficult roles in Scrum.  However, it can also be one of the most rewarding roles in Scrum, since Product Owners literally see their ideas brought to life on the computer screen.  Product Owners need to be very patient, even in the face of criticism and need to be willing to make tough decisions on priority, but then not become offended when others disagree with those decisions.  Companies should spend the time needed to find the right product owners for their teams.  Doing so will only help the company to write better software.

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Posted on Monday, May 17, 2010 11:06 AM | Back to top

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