How to scale up the Product Owner role: tackling the role with the help of the whole team

When a product grows and becomes a success, so will the demands on the Product Owner.

There will be more stakeholders interested in the product, which leads to more meetings. The number of teams developing the product will grow, which will increase the number of meetings and daily questions to the Product Owner.

The more successful the product becomes, the harder it is to manage that product with one single Product Owner.

It is no surprise that most successful products seem to be constantly affected by the lack of time on the part of the PO. However, that’s not the only cause for a PO to be pressed for time. In smaller companies that are adding products to their offering, we often need to start working on a new service or product before a new PO can be hired. On top of that, the knowledge that is already in the PO’s head will be hard to transfer to a new PO, so hiring more Product Owners may even be the wrong thing to do.

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All this leads to having the PO spread thin, without time to attend all the meetings they should, and help make all the decisions that are pending. I often see PO’s being assigned 20-30% of their time to a product and team, which makes it very hard to play the role of PO as Scrum defines it.

Product Owners are usually considered experts and are therefore required to be in all meetings to answer questions because of their domain knowledge. This means that they invariably run out of time and miss important meetings.

Reasons for PO role overload

There are many reasons for PO’s to be spread thin and be away from their teams. It could be that the company is growing, or the product is growing so much that it requires more and more time or even the meeting-inflation that many companies suffer from.

Finally, it could be that as the product grows, we have more teams involved, which directly leads to an exponential growth in Scrum meetings for the PO. When the Product Owner needs to be involved in all decisions, he will invariably become a bottleneck for decision making.

But there’s a bigger anti-pattern behind the bottleneck PO problem: the team does not feel empowered, or confident that they can make decisions on their own without involving the Product Owner.

Even if they would want to make decisions, they don’t have the knowledge to validate their decisions without asking for a meeting with the Product Owner. As Scrum Masters, we must understand the reasons for the failure of the PO role in our organizations. Once we understand the reasons behind that failure we are then ready to start tackling the root causes, one by one.

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