What do I do when There is More Than One Product Owner

The product owner defines what the development team is meant to build and the order in which it is built. What should you do when the Product Owner responsibilities lie with more than one person?

The short answer, that works in simple situations, is get the business to pick one. However things are not always so simple and there are situations where you will need more than product owner. I’ll outline a few scenarios, both good and bad, which for the purposes of this post I’ll characterise as Many Kings, Pretender to the Throne, and finally Chief and Indians.
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How to Juggle New Product Development with Operational Demands

You’ve got a product backlog as long as your arm but the system is live and operational demands keep landing on the developers doorstep. What to do?

Many development teams have to cope with operational commitments in addition to their new work. This is inconvenient but reality. Basically you need a mechanism to get operational work through the process despite high priority new development. There are a few mechanisms to enable this.
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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.
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Correcting Overcommitment during a Sprint

As I’ve said before the most common problem I’ve seen with software development teams is over commitment. If worse comes to worst you get to the end of the spring before realising the problem. But you don’t have to wait until the end of a sprint to take corrective action.

Taking Corrective Action mid-Sprint to address Over Commitment

Taking Corrective Action mid-Sprint to address Over Commitment

This post was prompted by a comment, by Chris, on the post where I described what to do when tasks in the Sprint Plan are not finished. My assumption in that post was the team only realises they are overcommitted at the end of the sprint. And for first time teams that is often exactly what happens.

What I didn’t mention is that more mature teams are likely to spot what is going on earlier.
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How to Manage a Vague or Dynamic Product Backlog

In response to my request for questions along the lines of what do I do when … ? Jo asked:

What do I do when the product backlog is not complete and we still want to deliver our product on the agreed date? It is hard for the Product Owner to prepare a complete feature backlog and for developers to estimate the required time in order to get a realistic burndown chart during the sprints. The product backlog is kind of dynamic.

In response I’m going to look at three states for the product backlog and strategies for managing backogs when in each of those states:

  1. Normally vague/dynamic
  2. Completely vague
  3. Massively dynamic

The first of these states is, well, normal. You never know everything about the scope. You just have to manage what you do know.

The other two states suggest something is going wrong in the product management space. And that is very much a product owner issue. The agile project manager / scrum master role is to help the product owner and/or organisation realise their problem.
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What do I do When Tasks in the Sprint Plan are not Finished?

This is what having a large number of tasks unfinished at end of Sprint looks like:
Over commitment burndown

Not pretty.

It is best to avoid over commitment so the answer to “What do I do When Tasks in the Sprint Plan are not Finished?” is to lower your expectations next time you go into planning. Using Scrum language you should ensure the team only commit to what is achievable, and that is obviously less than they thought was possible the last time around.

You’ve also got to tidy the up the mess left by the previous Sprint. Have a look at the unfinished tasks and decide if they are necessary for your high priority user stories. If so, then schedule them into the next Sprint. If not, then forget about them.

Finally, you have to decide what credit you can give yourself, i.e. what velocity you earned in the previous Sprint. Personally I start hard line about this. You can only claim a user story if it is completed, so you can only add the story points for that user story if all the tasks have been completed. No partial credit.

Having said that:

  • If you find that the unfinished tasks are actually unnecessary then you can claim credit for the whole user story.
  • It is sometimes possible to split a user story into meaningful sub-parts. If one of the sub-parts has been completed then you can claim the story points of the sub-part for velocity

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.

Nine Common Strategies for Managing a Growing Defect Backlog

In response to my request for questions along the lines of what do I do when … ? Jo asked:

What do I do when the defect backlog keeps growing with low impact (and low priority) defects and nobody seems to pay attention to them as we have more important features (or medium/high) priority defects to deal with? Should we deal with it or just stop logging low impact defects?

Faults are an inevitable part of software delivery. I only briefing touched on managing lists of faults in Agile Project Execution so it is well worth expanding on.

In fact defects is an area where software delivery, including agile software development, can get messy. Luckily there are ways to manage this mess or to avoid it altogether. Jo’s question hints at potential answers but there are others. In fact I know of at least nine common strategies for managing a growing fault list.
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What do I do When … ?

A few years back I did a big agile roll out and I asked people for a list of the things which might upset the agile software delivery process. Although I asked for Agile Gotchas the team actually came up with was a set of questions on "What do I do when … ?".

I’ve answered many of these questions in my big articles on Agile Project Management but I’ve decided to put a bit more focus on them. So, in a new series of monthly posts, I’ll answer questions on the theme of What do I do When.

I have some questions in mind but I would also welcome other questions along the lines of What do I do When … ?. If you’ve got a suggestion please drop me a line or add a comment.