Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scaling Scrum: The Chief Product Owner

We’ve begun our next phase of Agile transformation - scaling Scrum from single team efforts to larger multi-team projects within our organization.   As part of this phase, we’ll be building and delivering multi-product enterprise-ready offerings, requiring the coordination of many Scrum teams across many time-zones.  

Not unexpectedly, as we’ve delivered the first few product iterations from these larger efforts we’re faced with new challenges.  Among the biggest are coordinating backlogs between teams and resolving dependencies and integration issues.  Both issues are requiring a lot of additional time and effort, over and above the team-level Product Owner and Scrum Master efforts.   

In his book about scaling Scrum, titled The Enterprise and Scrum, Ken Schwaber states “The higher the level is, the harder the Product Owner’s and Scrum Master’s job is.”  This is an important point to recognize and deal with: as you expand the size and scope of a product, as you “scale up”, more work is required for those holding the key roles in Scrum. Though this is a huge challenge, there are common patterns that can be used to help.  One is the Scrum of Scrums, where one or more representatives from each Scrum team meet daily to coordinate Sprint work and Sprint dependencies.  Another pattern, one that I consider extremely important when scaling, is a Chief Product Owner.  

The Chief Product Owner is a new unofficial (to Scrum) “role” that can greatly help with scaling Scrum.  In Scrum-speak, this role is the Product Owner of the whole product.  The Chief Product Owner is a person who is the single point of accountability for the success or failure of the complete project. This person owns the overall single product-level Backlog,  and provides guidance to the group of product owners on the Scrum teams that comprise the complete effort.  The chief Product Owner uses this backlog to coordinate the work, likely in the form of sub-backlogs, between the sub-teams, through each individual team’s Product Owner.

It is important to note that this role is filled by an individual, not a committee.  Without a designated person ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the effort, there is a high risk of “death by committee”.  By identifying a Chief Product Owner you can avoid this and have one final arbiter to order work and accepting results, as Scrum dictates for individual teams.

The Product Owner role is a key role on individual Scrum Teams.  When scaling Scrum, this role takes on even more importance - the success of the entire product relies on deep understanding of the overall product backlog and careful and coordinated roll out of work to individual Scrum teams.   Like the Product Owner role on an individual Scrum team, the Chief Product Owner is a full time role, one that requires a full time focus and commitment in order to be successful.