Monday, March 12, 2012

Area Product Owner – more negotiator and less entrepreneur?


I've been giving a fair amount of Product Owner trainings and mostly to people in organizations which are BIG. BIG here means 10+ ... 30+ Scrum teams or even 80+ Scrum teams.
Ok, they are not always “real” Scrum teams, based on the definition. Sometimes they are more component team and sometimes, those teams can do a piece of end-to-end functionality.


The typically audience in those trainings consists of all-sorts-of-architects, assigned Area Product Owners, project managers (not THE project manager – more kind of sub-project manager) and others who have a word in saying what others should or should not do. Occasionally, I see THE Product Owner.

In those trainings (more or less following the ideas of the Certified Product Owner trainings from e.g. the Scrum Alliance), the people often feel that what I talk about is too theoretical (nice to know and irrelevant). This is due to the fact that the participants don't e.g.,
  • create the product vision
  • define business models
  • cooperate with customers
  • estimate value of backlog items
  • decide about scope/schedule priorities
  • decide issues related to the product life cycle

What do they do then?
I differentiate two main cases: (A) The Area PO (APO) serves a single PO and (B) the Area PO serves several stakeholders e.g. several PO's, PO and Program Manager, PO and LMs (e.g. acting as fault coordinator). I will focus on case (B) as this was the setup which I faced in my experiment (and in many trainings). Case (A) is a subset of case (B) and the reader is free to pick what fits and ignore the rest.

Reality check: The higher level dependencies as well as higher level flow (e.g. to System Verification) are “managed” by somebody else then APO. The APO typically is not discussing with customers – only with development internal stakeholders. The requirements are broken down by somebody (often an architect at a higher level) before they reach the APO (and this reduces the importance of discussing User Stories in my trainings).

In the end , the APO is responsible for the “area backlog” (often a separated backlog instead of having ONE product backlog with sections for the different product areas) which might still contain end-to-end product features and functionalities as well as requirements with dependencies to other areas. The remaining real work with the backlog is to make the different stakeholders understand that the sum of all their needs (wishes, demands) is far too much compared to what the teams can handle.

Thus the key role of the APO is to bring the facts on the table and to facilitate the negotiation between the various stakeholders. The APO does not prioritize the items, the stakeholders need to do that part. Those facts – made visible by APO - are based on real velocity/throughput data, team estimates, identified risks, dependencies within the product area, new functionality vs. improvement actions etc.

How to train people to become a professional APO in such an environment?

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