Three Strategies when the Product Owner is Disengaged

Karine doesn’t show up. She has a good reputation and was previously the product owner on a run away success. But on your project she seems quite distracted by other commitments. What she is working on is all good stuff and related to the wider programme but it means Karine often misses the important meetings with your development team. When she does turn up the team are very happy with the input she provides. They’d just like it more often. Much more often.

Phil doesn’t show up. He is a colleague of Karine and is product owner on another work stream within the same programme. Phil’s development team never sees him at all as he is entirely focussed on external communications.

Mike doesn’t show up. He’s the external customer and commissioned you and your company to build some software. He knows his business inside out but he’s never been involved in software development before. And Mike is quite busy and doesn’t often make it to your offices. When he does come in he talks to the CEO and not the developers.

I’m sure elements of these scenarios will sound familiar to you?

You’ve got a a big problem if the Product Owner does not show up to the key meetings of the Agile Heartbeat or is otherwise not engaged.

To address this problem you’ve got three options: Educate, Delegate, or Escalate.

Educate

Some product owners don’t fully understand their role at the start of development. When they don’t show up they are not trying to make life harder. They are just don’t understand what they should be doing.

So a good first step is to explain to the product owner their role and responsibilities within the development process. So somebody – often the project manager or coach – having a quiet word to the product owner will help a lot.

Delegate

The product owner might understand their roles and responsibilities but still not be able to attend sufficiently often. A strategy to try here is to get them to delegate their day to day responsibilities to a surrogate.

Typically the surrogate product owner is a:

  • Product manager
  • Business analyst
  • Project manager

The product owner might delegate to another product manager. Often a more junior one. Another common scenario, perhaps more common, is if the team has a business analyst as the surrogate product owner. Another common pattern I’ve seen is when the project manager is the surrogate. In this case they have to be comfortable doing business analysis work.

There are a couple of risks with this approach. Everybody needs to watch for these and respond appropriately:

  1. The product owner doesn’t spend even enough time with the surrogate for them to pick up the vision.
  2. The surrogate starts to impose their own vision rather than relaying the wishes of the real product owner.

Health warning: These risks are substantial enough that come Agile coaches ban the term “surrogate product owner” (hi, Ed and Andrew).

Even if you have a surrogate for day to day interaction the product owner really should attend planning and formal reviews and if you can’t get that then Escalate.

Escalate

If education doesn’t work and a surrogate isn’t available then the only choice left is to escalate the issue to higher level management. Management then has similar options. Explain responsibilities and priorities to the product owner, i.e. “you must turn up”. Failing that they could find a surrogate to help the product owner. The last option is to replace the product owner.

This post is part of my What do I do When … ? series. Please drop me a line or add a comment if you’ve got a question you’d like answered.

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