The Product Owner from Hell

On at least two occasions we've run into a Product Owner that was, to be honest, an agile team's worst nightmare.The Product Owner is supposed to represent the interests of the business, providing information on needs, requirements, priorities, and the like.  This one, however, was a former IT guy, steeped in the traditional approach.  Instead of merely establishing priorities and representing the needs of the business, he also wanted the team to have a detailed task plan that he felt he needed to approve.  He didn't understand or accept the idea of a self-organizing team.  In short, the guy was a control freak who felt that being the product owner put him in charge of everything.

While we want the Product Owner to be engaged and feel a sense of commitment, this guy needed to be committed, or at least get some therapy!  The twin ideas that there is no detailed iteration plan, and by this I mean a plan with formal tasks and dependencies, and that the team is self-directing, flew in the face of everything this former IT manager held dear. 

The agile team needs to act as a team, based on bonds of professionalism and mutual accountability.  There is no room for micromanagement, and being appointed the Product Owner does not come with the right or responsibility to tell the team how to do their jobs.  The Product Owner has clear responsibility for the what and the why, but not the how or when.

When you find yourself faced with such a Product Owner, the only suitable reaction is to stage a coup; you need a different Product Owner.  If that won't work, you need to accept that your project is not going to be agile.  You might even want to think about finding a new project.


2 Comments
  1. Kurt Bittner | March 12, 2012 at 9:11 am Reply

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    Hi Mark. Yes, that’s a great line! In a sense, what the Product Owner does on an agile project is to remove the responsibility for “getting the requirements right” from the team, effectively “outsourcing” it. If you have a great Product Owner like Steve Jobs, you get the iPhone and iPad. If you don’t you get RIM’s Playbook tablet – a “bag ‘o features” in a box. Of course I am oversimplifying, but vision and focus on user experience have to permeate everything that the Product Owner does. Too many Product Owners are not up to the challenge.

  2. Mark Lines | January 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm Reply

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    I know what you mean Kurt! I have seen that too. It goes to show that great ideas from agile and the Unified Process can be just as easily misapplied as traditional approaches. Methods don’t’ kill projects, people do.

    Mark