How to help the PO be involved with the Scrum team, even if the PO does not have time

The Product Owner (PO) is a tough role to fill. Product Owners are torn between users, senior management, team and other stakeholders that they need to attend to.
While the team is working on completing the backlog items, the PO is probably meeting with the Director of Product to agree on a roadmap; with the CEO to hear about the latest ideas he got from visiting a client; trying to meet with the user research group to understand better the customer; reporting status to the head of Project Management; and still needs to visit the Sprint Planning, Backlog Grooming, Demo and the occasional daily meeting to answer questions from the team. And let’s not forget the email backlog!
With all of these tasks one has to ask: do we believe a single person can do this all alone? What I describe here is not even rare! We seem to collectively think that the Product Owner is a super-hero!

Given all of these tasks, it is little wonder that the PO’s end up struggling to even manage the JIRA tickets the teams ask them to review, give feedback on, and prioritize.

The feeling of overwhelm is common in Product Owners. They ask themselves if they are spending their time on the right things. Wouldn’t you, if you got constantly interrupted by questions and requests from others? How do we solve this, increase collaboration between Team and Product Owner, and improve our work place at the same time? Read on for more…

But the worst anti-pattern is when the Product Owner loses sight of the bigger goal, the business goal that the Product is supposed to help the company achieve!

The effective Product Owner

In contrast to the sorry state of affairs today, the effective Product Owner is able to agree on goals with the stakeholders (such as CEO/CTO, other PO’s, etc.), can answer questions from the teams when they arise, and keep the backlog clean and prioritised so that the team is not waiting on the PO to get started on the next item.
The effective PO is also able to prove that each feature in the Backlog is indeed relevant towards the business goal he’s responsible for; and finally is able to say “NO” to stakeholders, by justifying his decisions with data on the critical product metrics.
How can we, as Scrum Masters help PO’s achieve this level of effectiveness? If we can help PO’s we will be able to help the company reach its business goals, help the team understand their purpose and feel motivated, and ultimately help the Product Owner by reducing their stress and making them feel empowered again.

The process to help Product Owners be effective

We describe a step-by-step process below that can help you help the Product Owner. I’ve used every step of this process with the Product Owners that I’ve worked with and saw their satisfaction, and their impact grow massively. I also saw teams be happier, and more empowered to come up with innovative ideas, and be able to deliver value consistently (as measured by the PO himself!) But most importantly, I’ve used these steps myself in my own work.
Right now I run my own business for which I am the Product Owner, and I’ve used these steps to help me navigate the uncertainty that comes with every business. When we start working on a new product idea we don’t know if it will work, we feel uncertain. Naturally, if something grabs our attention, we get attracted to that in hopes it will remove the uncertainty we feel. Having the discipline to say “NO”, and stay focused on helping the team deliver is not easy!

That’s why I’ve defined the process below for myself. Because I’ve used this process in my own work, I know that the process will also help you! Whether you are a Product Owner, or a Scrum Master working with a Product Owner, this process will help you to understand, collaborate and help the Product Owner be successful in his work. Ultimately, this process will help the team. After all, when we help the Product Owner be effective, it is much more likely that the team will be motivated, and focused on delivering value, incrementally and continuously.

Step-by-step process to help the Product Owner and the team collaborate towards a business goal

Here’s the overview of the process we can follow with the PO and the team involving each of them in a way that frees up the PO’s time, but gives the team enough contact with the PO to feel motivated, engaged and understand the PO’s vision:

  1. With the PO: Before you start, agree on this process with Product Owner (time and cadence of involvement), so that he knows what it is in it for him, and how much time it will take (or save!) from him.
  2. With PO: Understand why we are developing this product/service and establish a way to measure if we are reaching that goal. We will call this the “Why?” (or purpose) for our work.
  3. With PO & Team: Workshop the steps to the goal (the “Why?”) between PO and team.
  4. With PO & Team: Use Backlog Grooming to define a goal for the next sprint, instead of diving head-first into the long list of User Stories you already have.
  5. With Team: Work with the team to define stories to reach the goal (including looking at the stories that are already in the Backlog.)
  6. With PO: Have the PO review those stories offline (to allow the PO to manage his time flexibly.)
  7. With PO and Team: Spend the time in Sprint Planning only on the stories that need to be clarified. With time we will get so good at this that Sprint Planning will be done in a matter of minutes.
  8. With PO: Map all new requests for features to the Goal of the product. And help the PO say “NO” to those that don’t help us reach the goal, while explaining it clearly to the affected stakeholders.
  9. With PO: Help the PO review goals and stories with critical stakeholders regularly, so that they are kept in the loop and don’t feel the need to interrupt the team and PO on a regular basis.
  10. With PO and Team: Regularly review the way of working with the PO and the team and make the necessary adjustments.

I’m documenting this process in (excruciating) detail for you. The process description will include:

  • Facilitation techniques for each of the exercises suggested
  • Templates for the agreements, and documents to be created
  • Checklists for each preparation and process step
  • Agendas for the meetings suggested
  • And more!

If you want to get the documented process when it is ready just sign-up above and I’ll email it to you in PDF format!

This blog post and the process description are also part of the Coach Your Product Owner course version 2.0 that will be released during February. If you want to know more, sign-up above and I will let you know more about the course when it is ready.

Photo credit: Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “How to help the PO be involved with the Scrum team, even if the PO does not have time”

  1. Nice article. As a PO I sometimes (actually a lot of times), struggle with the exact things you describe. I feel obligated to write user stories, talk to everyone and get everything and everyone aligned. I need help from the team and the scrum master, but sometimes am afraid to ask.
    This article describes it is the responsibility of the scrum master to assist me in that. And that’s a exactly what I need righ now.

  2. Hey Vasco,

    your blogs are very interesting and would appreciate a copy when the PDF is ready,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *