Common Product Ownership Anti-Patterns and How to Avoid Them

by Steve Ostermiller (Ed.)

A good product owner is key for a scrum team to achieve valuable outcomes for their customers. Effective product owners follow some common patterns. Scrum teams who struggle the most give into common anti-patterns related to the product owner role. You don’t have to repeat these anti-patterns, so keep reading to learn from others’ mistakes.

You’ll learn common bad practices, called anti-patterns, that organizations, teams, and product owners make as well as solutions (good patterns) to avoid them altogether.

Before jumping into anti-patterns and solutions, let’s briefly walk through the scrum framework and the product owner role.

Scrum in a nutshell

Scrum is an empirical process control framework for enabling transparency, frequent inspection, and immediate adaptation to iteratively and incrementally develop, deliver, and sustain complex products. It is also in alignment with agile values and principles, often referred to as an agile framework.

The roles within a scrum team include product owner, scrum master, and development team member. The product owner plays a pivotal and demanding role that can make or break a product’s success.

Role of the product owner

The product owner’s primary goal  is to maximize product value through direct collaboration between the customer, development team, and stakeholders.

The main responsibilities of the product owner are to:
Own and communicate product goals.

  • Make difficult business prioritization decisions every day.
  • Ensure clarity of desired outcomes for the development team and stakeholders.
  • Gather requirements and manage the product backlog.
  • Participate in planning, refinement, and review activities as a peer member of the scrum team.

To achieve such tall orders, a product owner must have a level of empowerment. The organization should allow them to be decisive, available, and engaged.
Additionally, the role should be an excellent communicator. Further, they should have an acute knowledge of the target customer needs, product development lifecycle, and business strategy. The product owner must also know how to avoid common anti-patterns.

Product ownership anti-patterns

An anti-pattern is an ineffective (and sometimes even counterproductive) response to recurring problem(s) of product owners.

Preventing such bad practices, the first time around, requires product owners to understand his or her role within the scrum team.

It’s equally important to understand common anti-patterns product owners face, as well as effective solutions to avoid them.

Here are nine of the most common product owner anti-patterns and solutions for avoiding them.

Anti-pattern 1 – multiple product owners, one product

The existence of multiple product owners for one product is a common occurrence. This scenario happens during a transition from traditional product management. It’s often due to leadership’s failure to empower one product owner to work with all stakeholders. Those stakeholders may assert they should be making the decisions.

Product ownership by committee leads to a lack of direction, conflicts of interest, and delayed decision-making, hindering product success, and team effectiveness.

Solution: Identify and empower a single product owner as the decision-maker for each product. Set expectations with all other stakeholders on how they can work collaboratively with the scrum team (product owner included). Provide them a way to be heard and offer feedback on progress every sprint.

Anti-pattern 2 – one product owner, multiple products

When one product owner is the decision-maker for more than one product, it’s typical for them to feel stretched thin. This, of course, negatively impacts decision-making and team performance.

This anti-pattern often arises when teams scale too quickly without the necessary resources and appropriate expectations.

Solution: Empower one person per product who can be decisive in prioritizing and working collaboratively with the scrum team, customer, and stakeholders. It is a full-time job to do this for one product.

Anti-pattern 3 – lack of availability

Thrashing a product owner across products is one way to limit their availability to the scrum team. An inaccessible or unavailable product owner is often the byproduct of other anti-patterns.

The “fly-by” product owner is the result of not having enough time or having too many other responsibilities that take precedent over product ownership. It causes a slow feedback loop, a lack of vision, and conflicts in direction. This can cripple a product and cause extreme distrust from team members.

Solution: Establish (or reestablish) expectations throughout the organization that the product owner role is essential for scrum team success. Also, take inventory of all the product owner’s other responsibilities that cause their lack of availability. For each responsibility, ask whether the product owner role should own that item, or if it can be stopped, decreased, or delegated. Then proceed accordingly with those changes.

Anti-pattern 4 – proxy product owner

When the real product owner is inaccessible or unavailable, those roles and responsibilities can land on the shoulders of a “proxy” or “agent” product owner.

This is usually someone acting in a supporting role, not empowered to make the tough business decisions required by a product owner every day.

The results of relying on a proxy product owner are not much different from the results of a product owner being unavailable. This hinders prioritization and delays decision making.

Solution: There should be one fully empowered product owner for the product. If a product owner is truly unavailable and proxy product ownership is necessary, it should be a temporary solution until the proxy is permanently in the product owner role.

Anti-pattern 5 – overlapping roles

Overlapping roles or role confusion stems from a lack of understanding of scrum team roles and agile principles.

This anti-pattern occurs when product owner, scrum master, and development team roles and responsibilities have no clear definition. Or, when leaders try to have one person fill more than one function, which results in delays in productivity due to context switching.

When the product owner is also a member of the development team, the product owner is less likely to effectively represent the customer. Traditionally, someone from the “business side” of the organization comes to the “technical side” and asks for something. The technical team creates it and then hands it off to the business team. The business team says, “That’s not what we wanted…and it’s your fault.”

Or, if the product owner and the scrum master are the same person, the person “making the demands” also being the person “interpreting the rules.” This is a significant conflict of interest.

Scrum roles should be independent, individual, and peers, counterbalancing each other for the best collaboration possible.

Solution: The product owner should represent the customer directly, be intimately aware of their needs, and accountable to the business for achieving the desired outcomes.

Anti-pattern 6 – not engaging in sprint retrospective

Sprint retrospective meetings are crucial for improving the effectiveness of the team. Not participating in a sprint retrospective means the scrum team misses opportunities for improvement relating to product and customer issues.

This anti-pattern can also create us (engineering) vs. them (product) mentality, which is detrimental to cross-functional teams.

Solution: The product owner must be a full scrum team member and should attend every sprint retrospective.

Anti-pattern 7 – poor management of the product backlog

The product owner is in charge of creating and managing the backlog of work for the development team.

When the product owner fails to maintain the product backlog during development adequately, return on investment, and customer outcomes can both take a hit.

Clogging the product backlog is equally counterproductive.

This happens when the product owner uses it as a repository of ideas and requirements. If the product owner copies stakeholder requirements and pastes them in smaller chunks into the product backlog, it  creates too detailed user stories. Thus the development team may not feel they don’t need further refinement.

The product backlog is not a tool for handing off requirements to the development team.

Solution: The product owner must work regularly and consistently with the development team to continually refine the product backlog.

Anti-pattern 8 – inadequate feature slicing

Adequate maintenance of product backlog items entails feature slicing. This process allows for small and valuable solutions developed and delivered incrementally.
Not breaking up work, based on end-to-end functionality, makes it difficult to reduce risk and maximize feedback.

Solution: Slice items vertically to be independently valuable and technical. Doing so enables the development team to deliver useful, shippable product increments every sprint rather than partially valuable components.

Anti-pattern 9 – prioritizing output > outcome

Outputs are the things we produce. Outcomes are the results of the process. Although prioritizing output, speed of delivery, and shorter lead times is good for feedback cycles; it can damage development teams.

This “faster, faster” anti-pattern often occurs when a product owner is under immense external pressure from stakeholders, or comes from a more conventional project management background.

When a product owner focuses on quantity over quality, developers may take on more responsibility than they can handle. It can also result in misleading metrics that hinder long-term product success.

Solution: The product owner should focus on outcome-based metrics. The organization should empower achieving those outcomes and let go of output-driven metrics.

Avoiding the anti-pattern rabbit hole

Product owners hold a demanding position on the scrum team. It’s also one that inspires continuous improvement. Avoiding these anti-patterns will drive greater efficiencies, productivity, and results.

To provide the best foundation for avoiding these anti-patterns, product owners should pursue Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) training. View available classes today.


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