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We have a Super Product Owner, who cannot possibly be involved in writing or refining every story - they simply set the overall priority on the board.

We have Subject Matter Experts, whose day job is to be involved with work completely unrelated to our team and, mostly, unrelated to the technology we are building. They have knowledge which can be used to drive individual stories but otherwise have a light touch.

We have Business Analysts who are few and far between and, due to pressures outside of our team, cannot be as dedicated to our team to be ideal.

We also have the DevOps team.

From the left, our scrum board currently includes the following columns:

[New] For drafting stories (added to by the SPO, BAs and SMEs) [Backlog] For refining and 3-Amigo'ing stories [To Do] As usual (the board is normal from here...)

The problem is that we do not have a definitive Product Owner; The SMEs will either write the stories or provide input from the business to a story. The SPO might right a story. However, neither of those has the time or the knowledge (and certain not the business priority) to be the product owner for any given story.

What this means, is that a story will get to a certain level of detail and moved from the [New] column into the [Backlog] column. We, as the DevOps team, are then expected to take ownership of each and every story, push for the 3 Amigos and do the legwork to find out who is requesting the work, etc.

One acceptance made is that the author of the story is putting their name on it (something which, believe it or not, Service Now doesn't enforce) and so we have someone to go to (often, not always) to question. If not, we go to the Super Product Owner.

Direct question for SO: How can this be improved and is it acceptable to 'Agile' in general? Is there a particular element which could be tweaked, given the constraints outlined above, which would allow us to name a definite PO more often?

Less direct question: Have you ever worked in this sort of setup and how did you handle it? Is there a way to make it work when the 'PO' is a disparate group, rather than any single person?

  • It sounds like you may not be doing product development. Scrum is an agile product development framework, not a support or continuous flow paradigm. Are you sure you're using the right framework for your workload? And who is sponsoring Scrum in your organization? – Todd A. Jacobs Nov 29 '17 at 19:48
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What this means, is that a story will get to a certain level of detail and moved from the [New] column into the [Backlog] column. We, as the DevOps team, are then expected to take ownership of each and every story, push for the 3 Amigos and do the legwork to find out who is requesting the work, etc.

This sounds untenable to me.

Ideally, your SPO should delegate someone to be an Effective Product Owner, and act as coordinator for the (subject matter experts + business analysts) participation. The Effective Product Owner would then do all the usual PO things, plus legwork as needed.

Failing that, I would go to my management and/or the product stakeholders, and say something like, "You're paying the DevOps team to do development. It's not the best use of our time, nor the best match for our skillset, for us to have to do this level of non-development overhead work every time. Can you hire or reassign somebody whose job is specifically to do that part?"

If neither of those will work given the reality of your workplace, then at least improve the process so that New items don't get moved into the Backlog column unless they include all necessary stakeholder contact info (along with a backup contact, if your workplace is volatile or your stakeholders tend to be overworked.) In that case, you may still have to work with a different person every time, but at least you will know who it is, because you'll reject it from Backlog until it has that info included.

  • It’s not as untenable as it may seem. I’ll admit that Scrum may not be a good fit for OP’s team, but there are other ways to prioritize & work effectively. I was on a team under a similar situation (Lots of different product owners). We didn’t work very differently from OP and had pretty good results. – RubberDuck Dec 1 '17 at 17:48
  • My team also works with different POs, but we don't have to figure out who they are first! Thus my last paragraph. – Vicki Laidler Dec 1 '17 at 21:39
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A Scrum team has a single and dedicated Product Owner. That person has responsibility for the product backlog, though doesn't have to be the person doing the work. As the Scrum Guide puts it:

The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog. Product Backlog management includes:

  • Clearly expressing Product Backlog items;
  • Ordering the items in the Product Backlog to best achieve goals and missions;
  • Optimizing the value of the work the Development Team performs;
  • Ensuring that the Product Backlog is visible, transparent, and clear to all, and shows what the Scrum Team will work on next; and, Ensuring the Development Team understands items in the Product Backlog to the level needed.

The Product Owner may do the above work, or have the Development Team do it. However, the Product Owner remains accountable.

If you don't have one of those, you aren't practicing Scrum. This isn't a condemnation, but it is useful to acknowledge that if you are not practicing Scrum, you should be looking for other ways to solve your problems.

Without a person who owns the backlog, the another option is to create policies around how work is prioritized in the backlog and what constitutes an proper request. This must be applied consistently to be effective.

For example, if you say "All tickets are worked first-come, first-serve and must have a clear problem statement and a call-back number. Tickets without a call-back will not be worked." then you don't need a product owner to organize them.

Of course, you won't have any other benefits from a Product Owner either like overarching vision of product development and a local person to talk with. If you are communicating with your customers though, it's not necessarily un-agile.

If your organization decides that it wants to practice Scrum or it wants the benefits that come along with a good product owner, then they need to pick a person that has the time, knowledge, and authority to fill that role. Half-doing it will only get you half-done results.

  • 2
    +1. I couldn't have said this better myself. – Todd A. Jacobs Nov 29 '17 at 19:49

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