Getting rid of fake PO’s.

LeSS adoption prescribes one person in the role of Product Owner (PO). Not multiple people, not a committee, just one person. Companies have a hard time in accepting the idea that one person can do this complex task for the whole product. The product is too big and there are too many customers and stakeholders the PO needs to deal with. Companies refuse to redefine the PO role description and stick to having multiple Fake PO’s.

Fake PO’s agree that LeSS is wrong about the the ‘one person in the PO role’ concept. They feel that having multiple people in this role has clear advantages: The workload is spread, the PO-availability for teams is at the required level and with multiple people they can arrange 100% PO sprint-coverage. This solves the “problem” of a well known anti-pattern in (single team) scrum of the PO not being available. Moreover, in a multi team environment it is not possible for one PO to attend all sessions of all teams, because they happen at the same time, hence there must be multiple PO’s. Needless to say that this approach also helps them to avoid the fight over who should become that ONE PO.

But what are the real downsides of having multiple PO’s? First of all, it is confusing for the teams. Imagine you had a discussion with a PO on a couple of PBI’s. In practice this means that you will need to stick to that PO for these PBI’s, because 100% alignment on all discussed details is never achieved. Switching PO’s means re-discussing the same subjects with different outcome or a ‘sorry, can’t help you’ answer. Another problem is that Fake PO’s micro manage their teams to death. There is just too much time to fill with “work”. The fake PO optimises User Story creation and refinements become contract negotiations. The team refuses to take stories into the sprint because they are not refined well enough and they demand the fake PO to deliver better story quality.

You are a Scrum Master, just like me, working in the trenches coaching teams and fixing organisational issues that surround them. Like me, you work without top-down management support for your agile initiatives. This drastically limits your power to make deep organisational change. The hard truth is you either need to settle for a compromise or quit your job.

So what is the compromise you could go for? Is there an acceptable, temporary solution you could live with? I think there is.

Try “Feature Owners”. Make your fake PO’s owner of their own feature. One Feature Owner owns one or more features for the time that this feature is under development. So owning a feature is a temporary thing. Once the feature has been delivered and feedback on the feature has been processed, the ownership ends. A Feature Owner is not the same as a Value Area or Requirements Area PO as defined in LeSS (Huge). The Value Area PO owns a large functional part of the product. The Feature PO owns a feature temporarily.

This solution solves some of our problems: First of all, it is clear to the teams who owns a feature. Secondly, decision making is less conflict-prone since features are isolated units and only one Owner decides on them. Thirdly, it is a painless step for the fake PO to switch to feature focus. To the fake PO, it will be a relief to finally stop wasting time on aligning. This implies that you as a scrum master will need to continue your attempts to coach the Feature Owner to focus on markets, customers, stakeholders and to move away from micro management. And you can accomplish that by leveraging the number of features handled simultaneously by each Feature Owner. However, Feature PO’s won’t solve your problem of decision making at product level.

It’s not an ideal world (yet), and while building your Walhalla, introducing Feature Owners might reduce your multiple fake PO problem in an elegant way.

I told you what I think. Feel free to tell me what you think.

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