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When You Have No Product Owner At All
By Johanna Rothman

What happens when you have no product owner at all? How does a team know what features to develop in what order?

Several teams I know encountered this. They all had product managers. Most of them had BAs. All of them had a technical manager who was willing to be their product owner, but they had no real product owner. They called themselves Scrum-but.

I used to think this was ok. I now think Scrum-but is a bad label.

That’s because agile needs a responsible person who is not part of the cross-functional technical team to rank the backlog so the team knows the order of the work. Without that person, the team does not know what to do.

So why is it so bad for a team to call itself Scrum-but? Because it’s not Scrum-but. It’s not Scrum. It’s iterative and incremental, but it’s not even close to Scrum. It’s not agile.

General Agile

Figure 1: General Agile

When you have no product owner who is not outside the team, or outside the hierarchy of the team, you lose something very precious to agility, the notion of the customer or customer surrogate. You lose the person who could be helping the team understand what the customer really wants. You lose the back-and-forth about the product that the customer helps the team understand.

The manager can help the team understand the requirements, but the manager is not the customer. The manager is not the person who can set the real acceptance criteria. The manager can see the demo, but the manager cannot say for sure that the team is developing the correct requirements in the correct order.

So why am I so insistent that we stop calling this Scrum-but, and even stop calling this agile? Because it breaks down the separation when-and-what-to-build (responsible person responsibility from ongoing incremental delivery of product on a regular basis (the cross-functional team responsibility). The customer or responsible person explains when-to-build in my little picture. The team decides how to build it. When the team manager gets involved, that allows the “business” to be unaccountable for developing the system. How do you know what is shippable product without the responsible person?

The problem is this: System development, product development is a joint venture between the business people and the technical people. We need the legal, marketing, sales, and anyone else on the “business” side of the house to help us with the what-and-when to build decisions. That’s why we need a responsible person. In Scrum, that person is called a product owner. And, we need a technical project team to deliver the value. We use agile as an approach and use the demo because it shows business value every iteration.

When the business is unaccountable, the agile ecosystem breaks down. We no longer have ideas coming into that funnel, being evaluated by that responsible person. Sure that responsible person has a lot to do. And, that responsible person should develop product roadmaps and make the potential product direction transparent to the rest of the organization. That way, the next iteration or two is clear for the team, and everyone can fight discuss the product direction. But when all the discussion is in the technical organization, those discussions tend to not happen. Or the discussions go off in a different direction than the product needs to go. And, that’s a Very Bad Thing.

Because, when the discussions don’t occur, the technical group takes all the responsibility for the product: for what to build, when to build it, and for how to build it. And that means we have let the rest of the business abdicate all of their responsibility for their part of the product. That’s not the partnership agile promises us, nor is the transparency agile promises us.

So, when you hear Scrum-but because you have no product owner, substitute “On the road to agile.” You’re actually iterative and incremental, but not agile. You have not made one of the necessary cultural changes for transitioning to agile. Can you keep doing what you are doing? Sure, if it’s working for you. And, that’s the million dollar question: How is this working for you?

The original article can be found at:

Johanna Rothman consults, speaks, and writes on managing high-technology product development. Johanna is the author of Manage It!’Your Guide to Modern Pragmatic Project Management’. She is the coauthor of the pragmatic Behind Closed Doors, Secrets of Great Management, and author of the highly acclaimed Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People. And, Johanna is a host and session leader at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness (AYE) conference ( You can see Johanna’s other writings at

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