You are a Scrum Master or a Developer in a Scrum Team, and, for one reason or another, the team has been left without a person for the Product Owner accountability.
While this is a rare situation, it is not impossible (for reasons we will discuss later in this post). What should you and your team members do if you find yourself in it?
The long answer short is to establish continuity and do everything you can to help your team—and your organization—fill the gap until a new Product Owner is found.
Make it clear that a Product Owner is needed ASAP:
With the help of the Scrum Master, the team must make it clear to everyone in the decision chain that a Product Owner is non-negotiable.
Doing so not only puts pressure on the organization, the healthy kind, to resolve the gap in talent and accountability, but also sets important expectations for the structure of and roles on the Scrum Team.
Consider elevating someone from the Scrum Team for the role:
It may make sense for a Developer on the team to become the Product Owner on data products and platform products, where the work requires domain understanding and a certain level of technical know-how.
Scrum Teams with a Business Analyst onboard will naturally view them as an interim replacement—or potential successor—to the person who previously wore the Product Owner hat.
While this can be the right move, it is important to realize that the analyst will have a learning curve and need acceptance and support from the team’s members.
If a Product Owner will be hired from the outside, involve select members of the Scrum Team in their selection:
Suppose no existing Scrum Team member has the qualifications or the ambition to take on the accountability of the Product Owner. In that case, the organization will naturally try to hire someone from the outside.
It is best if HR involves one or two senior Scrum Team members in setting job expectations and selecting external candidates to ensure that an informed selection is made.
Do a Backlog Refinement and sort the work by criticality:
With the Scrum Team temporarily without a Product Owner, it is up to the team and its members to refine the Product Backlog and arrange the items on it in an order that maximizes the value of their work.
Refining the backlog to distinguish between “must-do,” “should-do,” and “could-do” product backlog items and ensuring that all team members have the same understanding of those items can be very useful.
Agree on a mechanism for prioritizing the Product Backlog:
The Scrum Team must agree on a mechanism for deciding what work is moved from the Product Backlog to the Sprint Backlogs and how priority is assigned to the work items it plans for in a Sprint.
Knowing that this is an unusual and far from ideal situation, there is no right or wrong way to do this: it can be done through dialogue and general consensus at the Sprint Planning events as well as through a more formalized voting mechanism.
Keep the focus on organizational/customer value:
The Scrum Team’s members must always be aware that their organization and their customers have expectations of them, and these expectations must be managed from a political and planning point of view.
The Scrum Master, who can take on the stakeholder engagement and organizational politics, and the Solution Architect (or Team Lead, or Senior Developer), who can act as the final decision maker, are usually the best-suited duo to bridge this gap in the interim.
Why Scrum Teams Get Left Without a Product Owner
What would require a Scrum Team to work, even if temporarily, without a Product Owner?
First, churn. If the Product Owner suddenly leaves the company and there’s no succession plan—for better or worse, there usually isn’t—finding someone else to take over, internally or externally, can take quite a while.
Until that new person is hired, and as they say on Broadway, “the show must go on.” The industry is always changing, business goes on, and customers still have urgent wants and unmet needs that require understanding, prioritization, and trade-offs.
You don’t put the work of a Scrum Team on hold just because a team member has left the company, especially if their product is considered business-critical. And in such a situation, it’s not uncommon for a leader or HR person to ask the rest of the team to continue their work until the gap is filled.
Second, a reorg. Reorganizations are part of work-life in large companies, and every corporate employee has experienced them at least once or twice throughout their career.
Many management theorists believe that restructuring is the only way for multinational companies to adapt to the abrupt, massive changes in their external environment that have lately become the operating norm.
Even the best-planned and executed reorganization can leave gaps, however, such as when a Scrum team is left without a Product Owner because that person is let go, changes positions, or moves to a different business unit or function within the organization.
This marks the beginning of a challenging time for the Scrum Team, as HR searches for internal and external candidates for the position. However, if the product is widely used and/or considered business- or operations-critical, the Scrum Team’s work will be unlikely to be put on hold.
Third, lack of understanding of Scrum. If the organization and the decision-makers within it who sponsor and staff the Scrum Team don’t understand how agile and the Scrum framework work, they may not understand the value of—the and need for—a Product Owner.
Whenever you find yourself in a situation like this, brace yourself, lay low, and consider your career options carefully.
This is a warning sign that the agile leadership capabilities in the organization are underdeveloped or frankly lacking—and that anyone who is part of this setup, willingly or not, is in for a bumpy, rocky learning curve in the months, quarters, or sometimes years ahead.