What to Do When You're Asked to Be the Product Owner for Multiple Teams

One goal, multiple teams
A group of co-workers gathers around a table to discuss projects

Delegation and accountability are two tools that will support you as a product owner who is working with more than one team on a single product.

In the ever-evolving realm of scrum, the role of the product owner is instrumental in shaping the product goal and ensuring the final product aligns with the values and objectives of the organization. 

The scrum framework is succinct, advocating one product, one product owner, and one product backlog, but often, a product owner may find themselves guiding multiple scrum teams. In such multifaceted scenarios, embracing accountability and becoming adept at delegation is vital to maintaining equilibrium and attaining success.

Product Owners Can Leverage Accountability to Work With Multiple Teams 

Accountability in the scrum framework is multifaceted, going beyond simply executing tasks. It's about owning the results and the impacts of the actions taken. For a product owner, accountability means being answerable for the product's success and ensuring that it aligns with the users’ needs and the organizational goals. It’s a commitment to achieving value through the relentless pursuit of excellence and continuous improvement.

A product owner can leverage the concept of accountability to foster a culture where the right people focus on the right things. Here’s how:

Aligning Teams With Product Goals - A product owner can create a sense of shared accountability by continually aligning every team member with the product goal and ensuring that every sprint pursues this goal. 

Fostering a Sense of Ownership - Encouraging team members to take ownership of their work increases commitment and engagement. When individuals feel a sense of ownership, they are more likely to be proactive, seek solutions, and contribute more effectively to achieving the product goal.

Promoting Transparency and Openness - Maintaining transparency about decisions, progress, and challenges promotes an open culture of shared accountability. By being open about the state of the project and the reasoning behind decisions, a product owner can build trust and encourage others to take responsibility for their contributions.

Encouraging Continuous Learning and Improvement - Fostering an environment that values learning and improvement can enhance performance and better outcomes. By reflecting on successes and failures and adapting accordingly, teams can learn, grow, and improve, contributing more effectively to realizing the product goal.

Understanding and leveraging accountability is pivotal for a product owner supporting two or more scrum teams. It’s about cultivating a culture where everyone is aligned with the product goal, takes ownership of their contributions, and is committed to delivering value. By fostering shared accountability, promoting transparency, setting clear expectations, and encouraging continuous improvement, a product owner can ensure that the right people are doing the right things, leading to the successful realization of the product goal.

How Product Owners Can Navigate Multi-Team Dynamics

When a product owner collaborates with two or more scrum teams for one product, the dynamics become more layered. It demands a meticulous approach to manage various team interactions, elucidate the nuances of the product goal, and maintain a consistent, unified trajectory. Creating an environment where the teams feel coherent and oriented with the product aspirations is critical for the product owner.

Strategies for Effective Multi-Team Product Ownership

1. Upholding a Unified Goal

Continually emphasizing comprehending and disseminating the product goal is pivotal in the scrum framework. It is the guiding star, shaping every team action, decision, and development. For a product owner, especially one supporting multiple teams, this goal's meticulous articulation and regular reinforcement are paramount to ensure that it permeates every layer of the development process.

Detailed Articulation of the Product Goal - A product owner must concisely and clearly articulate the product goal, ensuring that every team member understands the intended outcome and the value it aims to deliver. It should encompass the expected impact on the end users and the organization, presenting a holistic view of success. This specificity in detailing the goal provides a clear direction and serves as a constant reminder of the purpose behind every task and decision.

Regular Reinforcement - The dynamic nature of scrum necessitates frequent reinforcement of the product goal. A product owner should incorporate regular discussions and reflections on the goal during meetings, ensuring it remains in everyone’s mind. This relentless reiteration reinforces the shared vision and helps realign the teams whenever deviations occur, maintaining the congruence and coherence of the development efforts.

Alignment and Shared Sense of Purpose - Building alignment and a shared sense of purpose across multiple teams is crucial. It ensures that every individual, regardless of their team or role, feels connected to the broader objective and understands the significance of their contributions. A product owner should facilitate dialogues, encourage questions, and clarify uncertainties regarding the goal, fostering an environment where every team member feels invested in and committed to the product’s success.

So, what can you do as a product owner?

  1. Conduct Goal-Setting Workshops: Organize workshops with all teams involved to define and refine the product goal collaboratively. This inclusive approach ensures collective understanding and buy-in from every team member.
  2. Use Visual Aids: Create visual representations of the product goal and display them prominently. Visual aids are constant reminders and can help keep the teams aligned and focused.
  3. Integrate Goal Discussions in Meetings: Embed discussions about the product goal in regular meetings, allowing for reflections and clarifications. This integration keeps the goal alive in everyday conversations and decisions.
  4. Provide Context: Continually link backlog items and tasks to the product goal, providing context and highlighting the relevance of each piece of work to the overall objective.
  5. Encourage Feedback: Actively seek and incorporate feedback from the teams regarding the understanding and relevance of the product goal. Adjust communications and clarifications based on the insights gained.

2. Enhanced Communication

Establishing transparent and continuous communication channels becomes the backbone of successful product development in a multi-team environment, where complexities and interdependencies often intertwine. A product owner is the linchpin in this communication nexus, acting as the conduit between varying teams and ensuring a seamless flow of information.

Transparent Documentation - Transparent documentation is a consistent and reliable source of truth for all teams involved. A product owner must ensure that every decision, change, and progress update is meticulously documented and accessible. This approach alleviates confusion, clarifies the product goal, and enables teams to refer to the agreed-upon information whenever necessary. The documentation should be comprehensive, encompassing the nuances of each backlog item, the rationales behind prioritizations, and any alterations made during the process. By maintaining such detailed records, teams can better understand their tasks and contribute more effectively to achieving the product goal.

Receptive Attitude - A receptive attitude is crucial for cultivating an open and collaborative environment. A product owner should be approachable, willing to listen to the teams' ideas, concerns, and feedback, and responsive to their needs. This receptiveness encourages teams to voice their thoughts without hesitation, fostering a culture of mutual respect and continuous improvement. By actively seeking and valuing input from the teams, a product owner can build stronger relationships and ensure that the perspectives and insights of those involved are considered in shaping the product.

Application in a Multi-team Situation -In a multi-team situation, leveraging these communication strategies becomes pivotal for a product owner. By maintaining regular sync-ups, a product owner can mitigate risks of misalignment, ensuring that each team is clear on their objectives and understands how their work interrelates with others. Transparent documentation ensures that all teams can access consistent information, reducing ambiguities and providing a clear direction. Finally, maintaining a receptive attitude fosters an inclusive and collaborative culture where every team member feels valued and heard.

3. Ordering and Elaboration

The task of managing the product backlog indeed becomes more intricate when multiple scrum teams are involved. It requires harmonizing multiple perspectives, a clear understanding of the overarching goal, and diligent management to ensure that the order of the backlog items is coherent and value-centric.

Strategic Ordering of Backlog Items - A product owner must continuously dialogue with the teams to gain insights into each item's complexities, dependencies, and impacts. A well-ordered backlog ensures that the teams focus on the most valuable backlog items and contribute maximally to the product’s success.

Balancing Inputs from Different Teams - Each team brings a unique perspective, expertise, and understanding of the product. A product owner must ensure a balanced integration of inputs from all teams while ordering the backlog. This involves considering the insights, concerns, and suggestions from different teams and incorporating them judiciously to create a balanced and coherent backlog that reflects the collective intelligence and capabilities of the teams.

So, what can you do as a product owner?

  1. Facilitate Collaborative Discussions: Regular discussions with the teams enable a product owner to gather diverse inputs and insights, which are instrumental in creating a well-rounded and informed backlog.
  2. Maintain Transparency: A product owner should keep the ordering logic transparent, sharing the rationales behind the arrangement of backlog items. This transparency fosters understanding and acceptance among the teams.
  3. Seek Consensus: While the product owner has the final say in ordering the backlog, seeking consensus and accommodating varying perspectives lead to a more inclusive and harmonious development environment.
  4. Address Dependencies and Risks: Proactively identifying and addressing dependencies and risks while ordering the backlog ensures a smoother flow of work and minimizes disruptions during the development process.
  5. Review and Adjust: Given the dynamic nature of product development, a product owner should regularly review and adjust the order of the backlog, incorporating new insights, changes, and developments to maintain alignment with the product goal.

Focused Discussions with Scrum Team Developers

Product owners can facilitate focused discussions with developers, but it is also advantageous to have stakeholders involved in these interactions. Stakeholders can provide a different perspective and ensure that what is being built aligns with the needs and expectations.

By involving stakeholders in these discussions, it is possible to acquire more direct feedback and insights into the requirements and potential adjustments, providing a clearer picture and understanding of the ongoing work and the desired outcomes. This practice can also foster a collaborative environment where developers can better understand the stakeholder's perspective and expectations, resulting in a more aligned and value-driven development process.

However, it is crucial to maintain a clear and structured approach to any requests or suggestions made by stakeholders during these meetings. Any requests for additional work or alterations should be systematically evaluated and, if deemed necessary, added to the product backlog to ensure proper prioritization and assessment. Immediate changes should only be considered if the developers ascertain that such modifications will not jeopardize the sprint goal, allowing for a balanced and goal-oriented approach to product development.

How a Product Owner Can Master Delegation

Delegation is about enabling teams to be autonomous and accountable. Here’s how a product owner can master delegation:

1. Identify Delegable Tasks

Product owners, often not being the subject matter experts for specific product backlog items, should utilize the expertise of stakeholders and subject matter experts to elucidate backlog items. This practice ensures a thorough understanding of each item. It significantly frees up the product owner’s time, allowing them to focus on high-priority activities and maintain overall alignment with the product goal.

2. Establish Clear Expectations

When delegating, outline the expected outcomes, constraints, and the level of authority clearly to prevent misunderstandings and align efforts.

3. Build Trust

While it’s essential to trust your teams to execute delegated tasks, verifying the outcomes ensures alignment with the product goal. Regular reviews and check-ins help maintain oversight.

4. Provide Support

Providing support and resources and being available for clarifications facilitate the smooth execution of tasks and encourage a supportive environment.

5. Cultivate an Ownership Culture

Encouraging team members to take ownership and make decisions boosts morale, enhances productivity, and fosters innovation.

A product owner harmonizing multiple teams must skillfully orchestrate diverse talents, align varying perspectives, and compose a harmonious melody of value delivery. Mastering accountability and adept delegation enables a product owner to successfully navigate the intricacies of multi-team dynamics, ensuring the realization of the product goals and alignment with the organization’s values.

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