Top Product Owner Anti-Patterns & How to avoid them

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06th Jun, 2022
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27th Feb, 2018
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Top Product Owner Anti-Patterns & How to avoid them

The Product Owner plays a very critical role in the success of Agile/Scrum implementations in an organization. The entire effort of adopting and scaling Agile across teams is bound to fail if the Product Owner responsibilities and roles are not understood clearly. 

Anti-patterns are practices that go against the spirit of the Scrum Guide, which unfortunately many Product Owners unconsciously fall into. These patterns are in violation of the core principles of Agile, and while each of them seems harmless on its own, in the long run meaningful progress will be hindered.  

If you’re a Product Owner and are seeking to improve yourself, you should be aware of what other POs have done wrong, in order to avoid making the same mistakes. This list of some of the most common Product Owner anti-patterns—and the solutions for each—could help!

Product Owner Anti-Patterns

  • Busy or Missing Product Owner

Product Owners should always make themselves available to the stakeholders, customers, development team and most important, the Scrum Master. This helps important questions to be answered quickly and valuable information to be provided on time. The Product Owner’s availability should never become the bottleneck of the progress of the development team.  

  • Calling the Sprint Review a Sprint Demo

During the Sprint Review, the Development Team, PO and Scrum Master figure out whether they are on track and are progressing well toward sprint goals. It is the best time to reaffirm the priorities on the Product Backlog and ensure that value and productivity are being maximised. At this time, a Sprint Demo does not match the importance of the review, and may be out of context. 

  • Expressing the backlog in Technical user stories instead of focusing on business-related user stories

While technical functionalities are also important, the User stories should be focussed on business-related aspects. The technical aspects will follow as a natural result of enforcing business requirements. The PO must always prioritise business-related user stories. 

  • Writing detailed user stories

When the user stories are too much in detail, there is no scope for negotiation. User stories will evolve over the period of subsequent sprints, and if there is too much of detail in the initial user stories, flexibility is sacrificed. If the user story looks like it is already complete, the development team will not spend time on suggesting improvements, and the stories will not be refined further. They should always be left open ended to increase team engagement. 

  • Questioning the estimates given by the Dev Team

The Development team knows their capabilities best, and will be able to provide reasonable estimates of how much time each task will take. A Product Owner who interferes with the estimation is likely to be overstepping his or her boundaries. 

  • Not having a clear acceptance criteria for every story 

If there are any user stories that are not defined with the acceptance criteria, it will not be possible to efficiently close out task completion. It would be far easier to make tangible progress if the user story is defined at the start of the refinement cycle, or as close to the start as possible. 

  • Too large user stories

As a rule of thumb, a user story should be completed in a maximum of a week or it could become too large to handle. When user stories are too big, the flow of work will be affected and feedback loops will be delayed. User story mapping can be used to slice each story into smaller components. 

  • Not questioning the customers while collecting the requirements

It is very important to involve the customers during the process of defining the requirements. They are the end users for whom the product is ultimately intended. When the customers are not included in the conversation, their needs may not be fulfilled. It’s also important to note that in an Agile project, the requirements could evolve over the course of the project, so it’s important to keep the stakeholders in the feedback loop. 

  • Not allowing the Dev Team to work on Technical Debt

When dev teams prioritize speedy deliveries over perfect functionality, at a later time the code may need to be refactored. This technical debt needs to be worked on in parallel with sprint deliveries, as otherwise it could pile up toward the end, causing delays in the final product release. A Product Owner should always be mindful of the technical debt and allow the team to iron it out alongside new deliveries. 

  • Not validating the customer’s idea before implementing it

While the customers may have specific ideas about what functionalities they need, they are not the experts. The Product Owner, who has sufficient knowledge of the product, should validate their ideas, discuss what is possible and what is not, and then implement the idea if it seems feasible. 

  • Not allowing Development Team members to talk with the Stakeholders directly

While the PO is in constant touch with stakeholders, Scrum encourages collaboration. The 4th Principle in the Agile Manifesto explicitly states that “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” Development teams can also talk to stakeholders to get more clarity, if required. In the spirit of transparency, all such discussions should be made available to everyone so that there is no misunderstanding on any aspect. This is an aspect that should be decided at the outset by individual teams. 

  • Not empowering the Proxy POs

In some projects, a Proxy PO is a role created to act as a middleman between the stakeholders and developers. If there is any gap between the PO and the Dev team, the proxy PO steps in and focuses on current features in development. It is important that the proxy PO is sufficiently empowered to be able to perform these tasks effectively, when the PO is unable to do so themselves. 

  • Lack of vision on the product being developed

It is the responsibility of the Product Owner to create, manage and own the Product Vision. Unless the PO has clarity on the vision, the product may not turn out to be built as per customer needs.  

  • Delivering more features than valuable features

The PO must be aware of which features are the most valuable. If there are too many features being developed, but the most valuable ones are not given importance, then the product will not be as successful. The PO must be aware of which are the most valuable features, and should prioritise quality over quantity. 

  • Not having well-defined prioritization mechanism in delivering user stories

It is the PO who, in conjunction with the Scrum team, grooms and prioritises the product Backlog. The Product Owner moves the most important items to the top of the list, and should have a clearly laid out mechanism in place for doing so. 

  • Changing priorities or requirements during the Sprint 

If the PO suddenly changes priorities during the middle of the sprint, the development team may have tasks that are unfinished and will lose the momentum of completing them. Considerable time and progress will be lost. While it is a given that Agile is flexible enough to take on changing requirements, unless the circumstances are very exceptional, the priorities should never be changed in the middle of the Sprint. 

  • No single Product Owner, required governance missing in case of multiple POs

In the case of a complex project, there could be multiple POs working together. This leads to loss of governance as there could be too many people making important decisions. To be effective, the team should have clear knowledge of who is the PO and who are the proxies. 

  • Missing in Scrum Ceremonies

While it is the Scrum Master who facilitates Scrum ceremonies, for complete transparency and smooth communication, it is important that the Product Owner should also be present. The PO should make time to be available at all important ceremonies and events. 

  • Relying on mail communication for answering queries from Dev Team

While email communication is always good for complete clarity and maintaining a record, when the PO relies only on emails to communicate with the Dev team, valuable time is lost. Instead, the PO should always be available for urgent queries from the team, and if necessary the responses can be later recorded over email to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. 

  • No emphasis on Quality

It is the Product Owner who maintains the Product Vision and should ensure delivery of high quality products. When there is not enough emphasis on improving quality, the Dev team will also lose the required engagement and could churn out substandard work. 

  • Treating estimates as deadlines

The core principle of any Agile project is flexibility. When a Product Owner starts to treat an estimated time as a firm deadline, there is loss of flexibility. At times the Dev team may require some extra time to create features with high quality, or the requirements could also have evolved over the course of the project, necessitating an extension of time. The PO should be flexible with respect to time estimates. 

  • Instructing team on what needs to be done, acting as a Manager

The Scrum team works in collaboration with each other, and with the PO and Scrum Master to deliver the features during each sprint. There are no managers in Scrum, and the whole team takes ownership for product delivery. If the PO acts as a manager then the spirit of Scrum is lost. 

  • Expecting user stories to be created by team, considering SM and PO to be there only to review the stories

While anyone can write user stories, it is the PO’s responsibility to ensure that they are well formulated and organised into a Product Backlog. The Scrum Guide states that it is the PO who is responsible for “ clearly expressing Product Backlog items”, and if user stories are the primary expression of these Backlog items, then it is the PO who must take the ownership of these tasks.  

  • Pushing team to do extra work for finishing everything forecasted during Sprint Planning

Agile is nothing if not flexible. During the Sprint Planning process, the team estimates how much work can be completed during the sprint. However, despite best efforts some of these tasks may be rolled over to the next sprint. Pushing the team to complete all the forecasts could reduce quality and increase technical debt, and it is not advised to do so. 

  • Holding the team responsible for any rework post feedback from stakeholders during Sprint Review

When there is any feedback from stakeholders asking for changes, it is most often the responsibility of the Product Owner who may have miscommunicated the requirements to the team. In such a case, the team should not be held responsible for the feedback, but the PO should own the responsibility and ensure that there is amicability all around. 

  • Not showing interest in answering team queries for clarifications after Sprint planning

A PO should always be available for answering doubts and settling queries after Sprint planning. Failure to do so will cause delays in work, and could necessitate some unnecessary rework. 

  • Not coachable by Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is required to act as a teacher, mentor and coach, and in cases where the PO or the team are not aware of the Scrum framework and principles, he or she is required to step in and guide them. If the Product Owner is not conducive to being coached, the project will suffer. 

  • ​Unable to prioritize the work

It is the Product Owner’s primary responsibility to prioritize the work, in conjunction with the stakeholders, customers and Scrum Master. He or she must groom the Product Backlog and move the more important items to the top of the list for the next sprint. If the PO is unable to perform this task the way it should be done, then the work will not be executed as per plan and on time. 

  • Consistently changes priorities during the Sprint

In an Agile project, it is possible that priorities could change during the course of a Sprint. However, if this happens too often, it is possible that focus will be lost and the team velocity will suffer due to items that are left unfinished. Wherever possible, the PO should change priorities only at the end of each Sprint, rather than in between.

  • Accepting partially completed PBI’s

A Product Backlog Item that is partially completed should never be accepted by the PO at the end of the sprint. Instead, it should be re-estimated on the Product backlog to reflect the amount of work left pending, and should be added to the top of the next Sprint Backlog. Work that is left undone creates confusion and uncertainty. It is important that the Definition of Done should be met, before a PBI is mentioned as ‘done’. 

  • Allowing dev team to change the Story points of a user story post implementation

Once the team starts work on the user stories, they could be tempted to re-estimate stories. This is a practice that the PO should not encourage. The story point is just an estimate and accuracy is not required. With experience, the team will become more efficient at more precise calculations. 

  • Not saying “No” to the stakeholders and allowing the product backlog to grow in size

 It is inevitable that customers or stakeholders will, over the course of the project, keep checking up on the competition. They may want to change the features, add new ones or redefine the product entirely. A Product Owner who is unable to say No when needed will cause the project to go off track. 

There's nothing more paralysing than a Scrum team with a bad Product Owner! 

The characteristics stated above lead to nothing but a Product Owner “Fishbowl” where new ideas and innovative thoughts pertaining to Scrum processes find no entry at all. 

The Product Owner  is..

The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team. It’s a one-person role that brings the customer’s perspective of the product to a Scrum Team.  

The Product Owner is responsible for:  

  • Developing and maintaining a product vision and market strategy 
  • Product management  
  • Ordering and managing the Product Backlog  
  • Involving stakeholders and end-users in Product Backlog refinement and backlog management  
  • Alignment with other Product Owners when needed from an overall product, company or customer perspective.

A GREAT PRODUCT OWNER…  

Grasps, shares and spreads the product vision:

A great Product Owner acts as the client's voice (also called a proxy-client at times) and makes a product vision together with the stakeholders. Each choice is taken on account of the product vision. This guarantees sustainable product improvement, gives clarity to the development team and expands the chances of product success definitely. 

Understanding the customer’s goals: 

A great Product Owner truly understands the customer’s goals with the product and is able to outpace their expectations. After all, pleasing the customer is the ultimate goal.

Is a good decision maker:

A great Product Owner is an authorized person to take product-related decisions. It may take some time to support his/her decisions, but this is an essential condition for an economical pace of the development team

Manages the product backlog:

A great Product Owner comprehends that the product backlog should be in sequence. Priority, risk factor, quality, getting to learn and dependencies are all considered and balanced with each other.

Prefers one-to-one communication: 

A good Product Owner believes in one-to-one communication to convey information. User stories are used as a medium of conversation.

Knows modeling techniques: 

  A great Product Owner has a knapsack full of workable modeling techniques and knows when to apply a specific model. Based on the model application he or she drives the project success. 

Shares experiences:

A great Product Owner offers experiences with peers. This may be inside the organization, or outside it. Conferences and meetings are great approaches to share experiences and garner information. Furthermore, recording lessons learnt can be significant learning opportunities for other Product Owners. 

Is present:

To be effective, the Product Owner should always be available for discussions with the stakeholders, customers, development team and the Scrum Master. 

Claims user story mapping:

A great Product Owner should ace the idea of user story mapping. It is a method that enables you to add a second dimension to your backlog. The visualization empowers you to see the master plan of the product backlog.

Keeps an eye on functionality:

A successful Product Owner keeps an eye on functional as well as on the non-functional aspects of the product. The motto of the Product Owner is to exceed the quality expectations of the customer and enabling functionality that provides value to the product. So, the functionality is the main focus of the Product Owner.  

Is knowledgeable:

A great Product Owner has a deep product knowledge and comprehends the technicality. Larger products might be difficult to understand and scale. In this case, the PO should know the formula to solve the large queries.

Comprehends the business domain: 

A great Product Owner knows the ins and outs of the domain. A product should be built with a clear idea of every aspect , not just an understanding of the development needs but also being aware of the current market trends. No matter how great your product is, shipping it after the window of opportunity closes is a waste of time and barely of any value. 

Acts on different levels:

A great Product Owner is capable of acting on different levels. These levels are popularly denoted as- strategic, tactical and operational. At the board level, a PO should know how to demonstrate the product strategy. Thereafter, he should create a strong support at middle management and facilitate the development team to cope with their daily challenges. 

Knows the 5 levels of Agile planning.  

Within Agile, planning is done continuously. Every product needs a vision (level 1) which will provide input to the product roadmap (level 2). The roadmap is a long-range strategic plan of how the business would like to see the product evolve. Based on the roadmap, market conditions and status of the product the Product Owner can plan releases (level 3). During the Sprint Planning (level 4) the team plan and agree on Product Backlog Items they are confident they can complete during the Sprint and help them achieve the Sprint Goal. The Daily Scrum (level 5) is used to inspect and adapt the team's progress towards realizing the Sprint Goal.

Is able to say 'no'.

A great Product Owner knows the best time and way to say “no”. This indeed is a difficult trait to master. While it is easy to give any new idea or feature the nod, there is a flip side. Good backlog management necessitates creating a manageable product backlog with items that will mostly get realized. Appending non-productive items to the backlog will only create false expectations. 

Acts as a "Mini-CEO".

A great Product Owner basically is a mini-CEO for his product. He or she has a sharp eye for opportunities, focuses on business value and the Return On Investment and acts promptly on all possible risks and threats. Every growth aspect such as size, quality, market share of the product is taken into consideration.

Knows the different types of valid Product Backlog items.

A great Product Owner can clarify the fact that the Product Backlog consists of more than only new features. For example, technical innovation, bugs, defects, non-functional requirements and experiments, should also be taken into account.

Takes Backlog Refinement seriously.

A successful Product Owner spends sufficient time refining the Product Backlog. Backlog Refinement is essentially the act of adding detail, estimates and order to items in the Product Backlog. The result should be a Product Backlog that is granular enough and easily understandable. On an average, the Development Team spends no more than 10% of their capacity on the refinement activities. There is no such prescribed approach. The Product Owner can also involve stakeholders and the Development Team in backlog refinement, each for a valid reason. The stakeholders are given the opportunity to state their expectations. The Development Team can clarify functional and technical implications. This will ensure a holistic understanding and enhance the quality of the Product Backlog considerably. Consequently, the opportunity to build the right product with the desired quality will also increase. 

Common FAQs

A product owner is noticing that overall quality is starting to degrade. What might they do to address the problem?

Discuss it with the rest of the team in a retrospective. The Scrum Master who facilitates the retrospective should then help the team to identify the underlying causes and help on how to improve. A possible outcome can be that the Definition of Done needs to be improved, for example a code review can be included.

What should happen if the product owner does not accept a story by the end of the iteration?

The Product Backlog Item (‘story’) goes back to the Product Backlog. The Product Owner can decide that it needs to be finished in the next Sprint. In the Retrospective at the end of the Sprint, the Product Owner can discuss with the rest of the team on how to prevent this from happening again. 

Concluding Thoughts:

A Product Owner is indispensable for a functional Scrum team. Not only is the PO the bridge between the development team and the client, but he or she also ensures streamlined product delivery. Ill-defined Product Owner roles and some of the critical PO anti-patterns are some of the impediments many of the Agile organizations are battling at present. The only long-term solution to such persistent issues is clarity on PO roles and a proper understanding of the end-to-end Scrum processes. 

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Sandeep Kshirsagar

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Sandeep is an Agile mentor with more than 12 years of experience as a Developer, Test Engineer, Automation Engineer, Scrum Master and an Agile Coach. He is presently working as an Agile Coach at Knowledgehut Solutions Pvt Ltd. Up until this point, he has prepared 800+ programming experts and trained more than 450+ programming experts in Agile journey at different organizations.