How to deal with an absent Product Owner

By | August 28, 2013

Home-Alone

What do you do if you have a Product Owner who is absent? I’m not talking about a PO who is too busy to spend time with the team or on holiday; I’m talking about when you have no PO because s/he has left the company/on long-term sick/etc. The obvious solution is to get a new one. Quickly.

But in the real world, it is often not that easy. Choosing a PO is not a decision to be taken lightly. S/he needs to be someone who understands the business vision at a senior level and can explain it to the team, groom the backlog and prioritise requirements based on business value, help the team understand requirements and support the team in many ways.

As a ScrumMaster, it is tempting to fill in for the PO to keep the team running. After all, you are responsible for removing impediments: not knowing your priorities is certainly such. But you must resist this temptation and not start acting as a proxy PO. As Lyssa Adkins says “An agile coach cannot make up for an absent or poor product owner by filling in the gaps. It catches up with the coach and the team in unpleasant ways.” If you do, you will remain relied upon for updates, budgets, timescales – you will become the go-to person for outsiders for all aspects of delivery.

So what should you do? If you have a great business analyst, then you could ask them to step in to the role. This relies on them having the information needed to be a successful PO: do they know the business vision enough to be able to prioritise work based on business value? In the short-term, they may be the best option even if they aren’t armed with this information. As long as the business is aware of the position (i.e. you have communicated the situation and clearly listed the priorities), then this could work.

I recently saw a team self-prioritise. Their customers were 10+ other teams within the same company, all of which were chasing deliverables from the PO-less team. The ScrumMaster was clear to reinforce to the business and the team that he was not a PO and, in absence of a PO, the team would democratically decide on the order work would be delivered. They communicated this order to the business and got on with the job. They were lucky enough to get a new PO within a couple of weeks, but what is particularly interesting is that the order the team chose didn’t change once the new PO came onboard. That is testament to the knowledge that the team had.

Self-prioritisation is certainly not a long-term solution, but it’s better than the ScrumMaster taking the role.

 

Have you dealt with an absent PO? Have you seen a ScrumMaster take on the PO role? Have you got another way to deal with the problem? We’d love to hear your stories.

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