In 2003, Barry Boehm and Richard Turner coined the acronym C.R.A.C.K. to remind us of the key characteristics of an effective Product Owner:
- Collaborative – Are they able and willing to negotiate with stakeholders about needs, wants and priorities to come up with an optimal product scope?
- Representative – Are they able to “walk a mile in the shoes” of a given stakeholder to help team members and others understand the context behind a particular need?
- Authorized – Have they been empowered to make the majority of product prioritization decisions without the need to seek approval from higher ups?
- Committed – Have they fully bought-in to the product vision and do they have sufficient capacity to fulfill their responsibilities as a PO?
- Knowledgeable – Do they have sufficient product domain knowledge but also the organizational savvy to know who to engage, influence or persuade?
Having worked with multiple companies who have struggled with Scrum, ineffective POs are one of the more common challenges I’ve encountered. And while a weak team might release a product late, at a higher cost than expected, or with lower quality than desired, having the wrong PO might result in the wrong product or service being produced which has a much greater negative impact.
I’ve had the misfortune to witness multiple PO dysfunctions including:
- An unwillingness to consider other perspectives
- Insufficient engagement of certain key external stakeholders
- Not striking an optimal balance between time spent with external stakeholders and with the delivery team
- Having the majority of decisions approved by someone else
- Having more than one PO
- POs who are only available for Scrum events
- POs who don’t respect the team’s responsibilities over the “how”
- Lacking domain or organization awareness
If I had to pick the most common weakness I’ve observed, it was a lack of availability. They usually had someone with the right personality, knowledge and authority, but that individual was stretched too thin.
You can’t fulfill the obligations of a PO off the side of your desk.
I ran a poll in the PMI LinkedIn Project, Program and Portfolio Management discussion group to learn what others had experienced. I was surprised to see that insufficient capacity did not receive the majority of the 37 votes cast. A lack of decision-making authority was reported in more than half of the responses, with knowledge gaps representing just under a quarter. Insufficient availability and an unwillingness to collaborate both received under 15% of the vote.
But when I reflected on these results, they do make sense.
You can hire someone with the right personality or knowledge. If they are a new addition to the organization, they can be mostly dedicated to being a PO. But if your organization’s default decision-making culture is by committee or by escalating to the most senior leader, it takes a lot of effort to change that.
(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com and on Amazon.ca as well as a number of other online book stores).