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I've seen many bad patterns appearing over the years, one is converting Project Managers into Product Owners. In my current org Scrum Masters are not involved in the recruiting of Product Owners, management assign them to the product. It's unclear if they have any qualifications or interest in Product Ownership.

Where does the Scrum Master fit here for example? Is coaching enough? Personally I have found it is not.

Who is responsible for ensuring the Product Owner has the skills necessary to do the job? Where does management fit?

Cavaet: Management may not understand or be interested in Agile or Scrum either, it's unclear how they can choose a Product Owner.

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    If management do not support the methodology being used, the Scrum Master is going to be fighting many uphill battles in addition to this one. Good luck! Oct 21, 2022 at 7:22
  • Correct, I have another post on this subject from yesterday. Oct 21, 2022 at 7:28
  • If we had the support of management, who is responsible for the PO being a professional, understanding their own job? Oct 21, 2022 at 7:29
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    @learnerplates, how about the person doing the hiring or assigning the role? Oct 21, 2022 at 8:12
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    To some extent, helping the PO understand their role is part of the coaching remit of a Scrum Master. But as I said in another recent answer, that requires the coachee to be receptive! Oct 21, 2022 at 8:42

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There are two things here.

If it's concerning Scrum, it's the Scrum Master's job to make sure they support the Product Owner - and not just the Product Owner, but everyone in the Scrum team - for establishing Scrum as defined in the Scrum Guide. The Scrum Guide mentions ways in which the Scrum Master serves the Product Owner.

But there is a limit to that. And this is where the second thing comes in.

You are asking:

Who is responsible for ensuring that the Product Owners are professional and understand how to do their job well?

But it seems the problem you have would be better expressed with this question:

Who is responsible for ensuring that the EMPLOYEES are professional and understand how to do their job well?

This is a far more difficult question to answer, but it seems to me this is the issue here.

A Product Owner needs to do a lot of things. And it's a different skill-set than that of a Scrum Master (and a different role all together in Scrum). Do you really expect a Scrum master to fill in all of the gaps that a Product Owner can have if they are an employee that was hired or placed in a job that they don't know how to perform?

In order to bring in good Product Owners, the hiring managers need to be able to identify what "good" means. In a company that doesn't really understand Agile or Scrum but are just going through the motions, this will not result in a good outcome.

When Moving to Scrum, many just focus on filling in a position (you need developers, a Scrum Master, and a Product Owner, right? Because that's what Scrum says). So they don't pay attention to the actual responsibilities and accountabilities and skills to match. Is just job titles. So you end up with Project Managers as the Product Owner or even as the Scrum Master, or other people that have never had the role, but now they have a new job title. And as you've noticed, the job titles means squat.

How do you solve the problem? Management needs to get on board.

They need to understand that Agile is a new mindset, that it's not doing the same old thing but talking about it using fancier words or referring to new job titles. They need to bring in coaches to teach them how to select good Product Owners and good Scrum Masters. If management do not support Agile, do not understand it and do not stand behind it, then as the first comment on your question mentions, everything will be an uphill battle. Even bringing in the coaches can backfire if they don't know who to bring in (I've seen my share of coaches who had no idea what they were preaching).

So that's the situation. And you already know your options.

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I would recommend you focus on highlighting and measuring the impact this is having.

Next, discuss the issues in your retrospectives and see if the team working with the Product Owner can resolve them.

If the team is unable to resolve the issues, escalate it.

I find that by focusing on the impact rather than on individuals it helps to take the drama/politics out of the discussion. It will help the management team to understand why it is important they hire the right people for the team.

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I think the agile context in which this question is being asked distracts from the real issue and its Occam's Razor solution you are seeking. You seem to be looking for the right person or role who has the knowledge to properly select an actor for a set of tasks. What you need to look for is a selection process capability that enables better performance in the selection of actors with the right knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform, a capability that has a reasonable degree of predictive validity.

Selection is difficult because you have to get passed not only a lack of knowledge of the tasks (as you stated in your question) but also the presence of biases that cloud selection judgment and are difficult, if not impossible, to control or chill.

Exacerbating this is the lack of quality predictive tools for most job families.

You may also have some business/political matters that are controlling changing an actor from one role to another, such as ensuring billable work for a benched employee, where protecting revenue streams becomes a higher priority over performance. This happens a lot for sellers of services.

Looking for the "best person" to select an employee is a non-starter due to inherent biases and our collective inability to predict the future. Instead, focus on a selection capability, where processes and tools are used to help drive the selection. Since that is expensive and very difficult to create, also focus on the risks for the roles in place now that are underperforming. Keep in mind that escalating these risks, where people are named, is fraught with land mines. Lastly, develop workarounds and other recovery actions to make up for the underperformance.

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In my perspective the product owner should be a sort of corporate entrepreneur. Most companies do not have people that have the skills that go with this role, but do have people with essential domain-knowledge. So the Scrum Master and management should train people who are motivated and tech-savvy, to make a success of a product. Preferably they have a bit of skin in the game. Hiring good product owners without domain-knowledge takes them at least a year or two to get on par in my experience. So I would always prefer to select and train internal people of possible.

I think the Scrum-team should be part of the interview of candidates, with a focus culture match. Nothing worse than a directive project manager taking over the development cycle.

If management is not interested in Agile, but they are developing technology, maybe they are not the right managers, or the company should not be building tech. Not all top-managers should be on the Agile-train, but you should be able to find one or two friends that influences the rest. Maybe spread some Management 3.0 books around. Being part of a product leadership team which includes Product Owners and someone from C-level feels good.

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How to Pick a Good Product Owner

Who is responsible for ensuring the Product Owner has the skills necessary to do the job? Where does management fit?

Not to oversimplify, but the primary qualifications for a Product Owner are:

  1. An ability to form relationships with the project's stakeholders in order to collaborate with them on the Product Backlog.
  2. A vision for how to turn a bucket of requirements and requests into a coherent Product in some incremental fashion. NB: They don't have to do this without help, but a lack of vision is generally where I personally see most Product Owners fail.
  3. The ability—not necessarily the prior knowledge—to work within the Scrum framework and partner with the Scrum Master to leverage the framework's events and artifacts to maximum effect.
  4. The capacity to honestly and effectively collaborate with the Developers on the Scrum Team.

Most of these things aren't really spelled out in the Scrum Guide. The guide provides a list of "accountabilities," but doesn't really spell out the technical or soft skills necessary to succeed in the role. More importantly, it definitely doesn't provide the organization any guidance on how to select the right person. Pragmatically, educating the organization on the accountabilities and the skills needed to successfully meet them tends to fall on the Scrum Master or an agile coach from at least an advisory perspective.

Note that while the Scrum Master is a great resource for educating or assisting the Product Owner in understanding the framework and helping that person navigate it, senior leadership generally assigns a person to the Product Owner role. That means that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring they are putting a qualified (or at least willing-to-learn) person into the role. You can advise them, or assist your line management in advising them, but the Scrum Master is rarely in a position to select or even heavily influence the selection.

Who is Responsible for Hiring or Role Assignment

As always, senior management is 100% responsible for company culture and the organization's business decisions, so if they don't invest the proper amount of time and effort into selecting the right person for the role then you have limited options. These include:

  1. Doing your best to facilitate the Product Owner in the role they were assigned, and educating them in agile practices as much as possible.
  2. Referring issues of performance, skill, or capabilities to your line management for support or resolution.

That's about it. You do what you can within your delegated organizational authority, and within the sphere of influence you have based on your role or organizational connections. Beyond that, it's management's problem; if they break the system, they get to keep both halves.

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I will answer this on the assumption that if a PO exists on the team, then the organization is agile and has possibly adopted the scrum framework. With this out of the way, the scrum master is there to support the team to live scrum in the daily delivery of their commitment. Remember, it is the responsibility of the scrum master to coach the team on everything agile and scrum. The scrum master is on the team to spot the PO knowledge gap and coach him/her on the scrum way of working. An example will be a product owner that sees the user story as a placeholder and nothing more, such PO will fill in the backlog with stories and expects that the development team picks it up from there. The user stories in the product backlog are not just to be written for the sake of writing sake, rather, they are there to fulfil a purpose. The scrum master will be responsible for coaching the PO so he can understand that the user stories are written from the user's perspectives, and he should be available during the sprint review to discuss these stories with the developers and be ready to answer all the questions from the development team, and also should be available to support the team throughout the development of the sprint.

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Cavaet: Management may not understand or be interested in Agile or Scrum either,

That's almost irrelevant. If a team stops doing Scrum tomorrow, you still need someone who makes decisions regarding the product, decides what to do next, build a roadmap and vision, etc. It's the same person. Scrum is just a different way to do things, but the things to do are independent of Scrum.

Who is responsible for ensuring the Product Owner has the skills necessary to do the job?

Whoever makes the hiring decision. Usually, a manager.

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