Scrum when the product owner is not available

08 August 2012

Peter Hilton

by Peter Hilton

environment set-up :tags: [scrum,methodology]

Scrum theory tells you to expect the Product Owner to be in the room; in practice, team members may need to stalk the Product Owner.

In theory, the Product Owner is ‘always available’. Ain’t gonna happen.

Even the most available Product Owner is sometimes in a meeting, out of the office, working on another project and all manner of other opaque ‘management activities’. Development team members are going to have to deal with this. They’re going to have to learn to stalk the Product Owner.

Availability matters

Product Owner availability matters, because Scrum relies on just-in-time functional specification, in the form of a face-to-face conversation between the developer who is going to implement user stories and the Product Owner who describes them. This works because making functionality decisions as late as possible allows you to make the most informed decision, and because face-to-face conversation is the second-highest bandwidth form of communication. (Face-to-face conversation with a whiteboard is better.)

If the Product Owner isn’t there, then communication bandwidth is zero. In the worst case, development stops and the Product Owner doesn’t know that he’s limiting the team’s productivity.

Tactics for the team

There are three things the development team can do about an absent Product Owner.

  1. Find as many communication channels as possible: e-mail, IM, group chat, issue tracker, etc. Experiment and find out what works, in addition to camping out at his desk.

  2. Use every channel necessary to let the Product Owner know that progress on a story is waiting for a discussion. Ping him to let him know that he’s needed.

  3. While you’re waiting, prepare your questions and send them to the Product Owner in advance. Leave him a note so he can find and think about the question before you catch up with him.

Although the Product Owner isn’t at his desk, he might be nearby or able to return. Software developers often give up when the Product Owner is AFK* because their own work is mostly planned and desk-bound, unlike management work which is more interrupt-driven and meeting-based.

Secondly, coming up with a clear question is half the work in a conversation about software requirements. Before going to ask the Product Owner a question, it can often be useful to first write the question down, which makes it easier to see whether the question is coherent. If you do this in an issue tracker, you can later edit the text and incorporate the answer into additional notes on the user story in question.

Keep it simple

Some questions are straightforward enough that you can get a one-word answer from a Product Owner who is in the middle of something else. Chances are he’s just stuck in a boring meeting anyway.

Finally, don’t forget to try the simplest thing you can do: put a big ‘your team needs you’ sticky note on the Product Owner’s monitor. You never know, perhaps he was just getting a coffee and will appear minutes later.

  • away from keyboard