4 Product Owner Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
By Ryan Fullmer
May 10, 2022
The Product Owner Role
The Product Owner is a vital member of an Agile Team. The PO provides the team with valuable work and keeps them focused on the product goals. There is a lot to do to accomplish those two things. It can be challenging to balance the need to support the team during the Sprint and work on the backlog. If the backlog isn’t well prepared, the team isn’t set up to keep delivering the highest value work.
4 Common Pitfalls
Watch out for these four common pitfalls that will impact your organization's success:
1 - Unrefined Backlog
The features and user stories in the backlog are vague and are often written just before the Sprint Planning Meeting. They lack acceptance criteria and the team doesn’t understand the context of why the work is important.
This results in wasted time during the Sprint as the team struggles to understand what is needed.
2 - Conflicting Priorities
The priorities keep changing and there seems to be new fires to fight on a daily basis. The stakeholders have their own priorities and compete for the team’s attention. The loudest voice tends to win and it’s a losing battle to try to keep everyone happy.
This results in lower priority work getting done while more important items languish in the backlog.
3 - No Goals
You and the team are focused on activity and demonstrating progress each Sprint. The goal is to deliver, deliver, deliver. It can feel like you are trapped in a feature factory. This results in a lot of delivery without making an impact.
You don’t know what you are trying to achieve with all that delivery. It’s hard to know if the right things are being delivered, the customer’s needs are being met, and you are being successful.
4 - Ineffective Planning
In Scrum, the team can spend up to four hours planning for a two-week sprint. Team members get frustrated with the time they spend in meetings and rush through planning, eager to get started.
Maybe the team spends an hour in planning and the planning deliverables are not well thought out. This results in wasted time during the Sprint due to a lack of coordination, waiting on answers, and rework.
Even though these pitfalls are common, the good news is you can avoid them or remedy them if you find yourself in one. Here are practical strategies to address each of the Pitfalls.
1 - Discovery Meetings and Spikes
Remedy to address the Unrefined Backlog Pitfall
Work with the team to incorporate time for discovery and backlog refinement as part of the work you do each sprint. There will be features and stories coming up in the next Sprint that need to be better understood. When it is unclear what is needed, why it is needed and what’s possible, it's time for discovery.
Create Spike stories to allocate time in the Sprint to conduct a discovery meeting and refine the features and stories. Discovery meetings help the PO bring the team together to get clarity they need to create a high-value solution.
Well-run discovery meetings will help the team keep the backlog refined and ready for each Sprint Planning meeting.
2 - Collaborative Prioritization
Remedy to address the Conflicting Priorities Pitfall
There is nothing worse than prioritizing based on the “squeaky wheel,” where the biggest boss or loudest voice wins. Facilitate collaborative prioritization sessions to hear everyone's voice and get buy-in on priorities.
Invite the stakeholders, involved leaders and representatives from the team. Establish clear evaluation criteria and a prioritization process to follow.
I have found this process to be transformative in getting everyone aligned around clear priorities.
3 - Defining Outcomes and Success Measures
Remedy for the No Goals Pitfall
It is really frustrating to realize that what you delivered was the wrong thing or didn’t make much of an impact. It is just as frustrating not knowing the value of what you are doing.
Take time to define outcomes up front. Describe why the work is important, why it is needed now and what you want to achieve. Identify how success will be measured.
I recommend defining one or two outcomes at the start of each quarter. Use these outcomes to guide your prioritization process and the Sprint Goals you create.
When the team understands the goal and what success looks like, they will come up with innovative solutions to the customer’s problems.
4 - Meeting Design and Facilitation Plan
Remedy for the Ineffective Planning Pitfall
No one likes to spend time in ineffective meetings. Make sure your Sprint Planning meetings are engaging, collaborative and valuable.
Set aside some time to work with the Scrum Master to collaborate on a design and facilitation plan that improves your Sprint Planning meeting. Gather feedback from the team members on what they would like to have happen during planning.
Have them evaluate the new meeting design. Try it out and get regular feedback to keep improving.
How to Get Started
Start small by choosing one of the remedies to get started with. Work with your team to get their support. Discuss how it is going with the new process in your team retrospectives to make improvements. When you are ready, choose the next remedy to implement.