A product owner refuses to allow the team access to stakeholders and customers. What would you do?
Welcome to part 43 in our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
I would change the product owner.
If that isn’t an option, here’s how I would go about tackling this problem.
The role of a product owner.
Unfortunately, many people do see themselves a gate keeper who needs to keep the customer, stakeholders, and developers as far apart as possible. I have written an article about this; you can read it on Customers and Developers in the same room? WTF?
This stems from the BA (business analyst) mindset in traditional project management environments and it can be hard to break. The role of a product owner is to CONNECT developers with customers and stakeholders because the developers are best positioned to understand the problem and accurately develop a plan of action to create a solution.
A lot can get lost in translation, especially if the product owner doesn’t have any technical expertise, and so it’s best to bring the people with the problem into contact with the people who are the experts in solving that problem.
That is the intention of the product owner role in scrum.
Educate the product owner.
Let’s assume that the product owner doesn’t have any malicious intentions, and that they are genuinely worried about connecting customers with developers. Ok, that’s fine, so lets start by educating the product owner about the foundations of agile, the agile manifesto, and the basics of scrum.
Let’s teach them why scrum loves having customers and developers in the same room and show them why it is critical to do this. Educate them on the importance of a sprint review where the customer and product stakeholders meet with the developers to explore what has been built, what prevented the team from achieving their goal, and how the developers intend to proceed from there armed with feedback and insights from the customer.
Surely, they would have witnessed customers and developers interacting within the sprint review by now, but if for some reason, no sprint reviews have been conducted, it’s worth setting one up soonest so that the product owner can gain confidence in the scrum methodology.
Educate the customer and product stakeholders.
In this scenario, it is unlikely that the product stakeholders and customers have ever worked with or interacted with the developers so it’s worth educating the customers on how scrum works, why it has been designed that way, and the crucial role customers play in helping developers build the most valuable product and solve the most compelling problems.
Sure, we want the freedom for customers and developers to interact whenever it makes sense to do so, but we can start with two events that are common for developers and customers to engage in.
- Backlog Refinement
- Sprint Review
As a scrum master, you can educate the customer on the purpose of backlog refinement and explain how they can best contribute to this event. Show them what backlog refinement looks like, provide them with examples of what great feedback looks like, and invite them to prepare for this process around some work items that matter a great deal to them.
Take it a step further and educate them on the purpose of the sprint review and how best to contribute to that environment. Explain how the sprint review is designed to illicit feedback and insights from customers and product stakeholders and help them understand the parameters within which they can contribute.
Remind them that this event is intended to be open, honest, and respectful. Sure, at times there will be conflict or anger, but it isn’t the forum to detonate nukes. It’s instead intended to be an opportunity for the team to engage customers and understand what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs doing to meet and exceed customer requirements.
The purpose of agile and scrum is to create products that truly delight customers.
It’s worth reminding customers of that and getting them onboard with the spirit of scrum and the sprint review.
Educate the developers.
The product owner might have legitimate concerns that developers may reveal something that the organization doesn’t want the customer to be aware of. Fair enough, that isn’t hard to deal with, it is a simple conversation with the developers about what can and can’t be discussed.
Educate the developers on the purpose of the sprint review and help them prepare a great review for customers and product stakeholders. You may even want to help facilitate the first sprint review or product backlog refinement session to help smooth the interaction between developers and customers.
It may be awkward at first, but you are working with intelligent, competent adults and so it’s only a matter of time before each side becomes more comfortable interacting with the other side.
Before you know it, they will be on the same side, and actively cocreating products moving forward.
You can facilitate a conversation between the developers and the product owner to air concerns and help the developers understand what the product owner has been trying to avoid all along. With insight comes understanding, and I have no doubt the team will iron this over relatively quickly.
If you need to coach the team, do so. If it makes sense to help them work on their presentation or facilitation skills, invest some time and effort to do so. Mark time out in the sprint retrospective to identify ways in which the team can better interact and engage with customers and then action the decisions the team have taken to improve.
Simple. Straightforward. Effective.
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