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Scrum – Ensuring that the Product Owner is empowered

When teams are using Scrum as their development model, there is a lot more responsibility added to the different constituents of the team; the 2 primary responsibility members of the team are the Product Owner and the other being the Scrum team (the Scrum Master really does not have so much explicit authority – it is derived from interactions with the team and trying to guide them to come to the right next step). In the case of the Product Owner, there is a lot of stuff that the Product Owner needs to do when using Scrum – Have primary responsibility for the Product Backlog and details of features (through fleshing out details in User Stories), working closely with the team to ensure that there is a clear understanding of the feature, Accept or reject the feature during the end-Sprint demo, and many other such areas.
When you think about all these, they do provide a good sense of authority and responsibility during the development of the project, but there are some problems. The big animal in all these theories about Scrum include senior management, and the need to ensure that they trust the Product Owner and the team (it is also realistic to think that when a product is important for an organization, senior managers will get involved at every stage, trying to determine whether the right features are there, whether the team’s productivity is high and trying to ensure that it gets higher, ongoing status of the project, and so on). Many of these queries are not just in a simple report, but actual questions and answers by the senior management.
The problem happens when such interference coincides with a situation where the Product Owner really does not have the authority that he or she needs. I have seen in a situation where the senior manager considered himself also an expert on how users reacted, and hence only those features which the manager thought were justifiable were approved out of the ones proposed by the Product Owner. Such a situation causes huge problems for the Product Owner, and overall for the product.
The assumption in all such cases is that there is a right for senior management to be able to approve or disapprove of the future feature set of the product, but at the same time, there needs to be a lot of attention paid that the Product Owner gets the authority that he or she needs. For working on the feature set for the product, there are a number of different stakeholders who have to be brought onto the same path (such as the team, experience designers, marketing, senior management), and if there is a perception that the Product Owner does not have the required amount of authority and independence to drive the list of features / User stories that he or she feels are best for the product, it makes the job of the Product Owner much more difficult. Even senior team members would be tempted to understand that since there are empowerment issues with the role of the Product Owner, they can make their own points clear in terms of features that they would like. This takes away from the role of the Product Owner in having direct responsibility for the Product Backlog in practical terms.

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