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How to deal with a situation when a scrum team colleague wants to cherry-pick interesting topics, manage and oversee the work of others and gets the Manager and PO's unofficial support?


Our company was bought and the new owner implemented the scrum process with the typical flat organisational structure. Former managers and subject matter experts work as regular team members now. It's been two difficult years but we're all better off for that and enjoy the collaboration spirit in our closely-knit team.

During the take over our company was also divided into branches, leaving our branch without experts in some key areas and our PO (who's also our Manager) working crazy hours to oversee (too many) strategic topics. So every team member took on some of the strategic topics as their pet-project to develop.

One of the much-needed experts has just come back to us from maternity leave to work half-day. She is also our Manager-and-PO's personal friend. She always wanted to come back as a PO (she too was a manager before and left prior to the take over and scrum) but the team was adamant that we needed a working bee like the others and not a second manager so our PO promised us to talk to her friend.

In the few days since the Friend's come-back it's become painfully clear that the Friend thinks she's an unofficial PO of sorts: she took over our strategic pet-projects without comment; she doesn't do any team member work, trying to tell others how to do it instead; she even wanted to move desks in one office and plants in another one to suit her taste.

When asked about all that by some team members, the Manager/PO confirmed that the Friend was just a regular team member, also responsible for strategy in her area (just like the rest of us). The Friend's only official objective for this year, however, states "PO in training" of sorts.

So while the Friend lacks team spirit (she didn't get to eat humble pie for two years like the rest of us to find her place in our team of equals), the main issue lies with the Manager/PO who apparently tells half-truths to both sides and elevates a friend to lessen own workload.


What we did:

  • Some team members talked to the Manager/PO independently, then the half-truths were uncovered.
  • Team members minus Friend agreed in a meeting that no colleague can have an elevated position, no matter how knowledgeable they are (we all are experts in several fields, every one of us could be a PO if based just on that). But everybody's got to do some grunt work. Cherry-picking is unfair and poisons the team spirit.
  • Our scrum master talked to the Manager/PO. There's going to be a meeting with the whole team to address these issues.

However, everything indicates that the meeting will be used to stick the new half-PO down our throats.

What else can be done?

  • Is it wise to escalate this issue? I mean, favoring one employee over another is just poor work ethics but not a criminal offence. The Manager's boss is the company's CEO.
  • Is leaving the company the only wise thing one can do in such a situation?

ETA: When the team suggested the Manager could vacate their own PO position for the new-old colleague, the Manager was adamant to keep it because without it, there's actually nothing to "manage" around here.

ETA2: We have only three levels in the company: CEO, PO/Managers (only one in our branch), team members. There is no room for a second PO or a Manager. There used to be more managers before but all of them/us are regular team members now. I think the current Manager lies to us and to their friend too, trying to lessen their own workload and to secure the Friend's help (unofficially), while having absolutely no intention to promote her in the end. That Friend's personality makes the matters worse (she really didn't have to behave like a boss one day in) and the Manager's poor communication and work ethics (taking away other people's projects without comment) made the situation really volatile. We all are going to have a meeting on Monday and hopefully deescalate the situation.

closed as unclear what you're asking by IDrinkandIKnowThings, Fattie, gnat, gazzz0x2z, OldPadawan Jan 21 at 13:10

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  • 5
    Typical agile problem: Scrum conflicts with bureaucracy. Agile in not only a methodology, it's also a mentality. – Sourav Ghosh Jan 17 at 13:48
  • @SouravGhosh thank you for your input. Do you have any suggestion on dealing with the issue? – E.S. Jan 17 at 14:01
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    Have you addressed this behavior directly, either during the day, or during a retrospective? Also, the behavior described in your post doesn't sound particularly "team-oriented" in the first place, with people having pet projects and specific, personal responsibilities. – Erik Jan 17 at 14:46
  • @Erik, you got me thinking why we didn't address the behaviour directly. Truth is, we believed the information coming from the manager and also didn't notice being left out of the loop on our stratetic topics immediately. Besides, the new-old colleague works part-time and isn't present at some of our meetings. Re: personal responsibilities: our multi-faceted complex product doesn't intuitively makes you think "scrum". So every sprint we have a small number of tasks that only a dedicated expert can address. – E.S. Jan 17 at 15:02
  • I'm not familiar with scrum/agile, but if a colleague of mine is avoiding tasks altogether, I'd put him on the spot for that. That is, suggesting him specifically to conduct tasks during meetings, talking to him directly to ask for contributions and so on. This would pressure the person to adjust, and you'll get opportunities to confront her directly if she responds with some claim that she's indeed a PO rather than a contributor. Try to keep things in "I'm doing nothing wrong as long as.." basis, you are not supposed to bully her, just treat and demand that she works as anyone else. – Mefitico Jan 17 at 17:57
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Let's look at the situation as it is.

  • You have a CEO who hasn't yet spoken on the subject.

  • You have a PO, who had to work crazy hours because they got left with more than one PO's worth of work. They've got a friend who's coming back who is apparently one of the "much-needed experts", and as far as you can tell, both they and the friend are hoping to slot that person in as a second PO for the branch.

  • The friend was a manager before. She wants to slot into the manager-like PO position. The PO was a manager, and wants to stay in the manager-like PO position.

  • You have a number of people who are not POs, some of whom were managers, all of whom have had to suck it up and work through the drek of adapting to this new process (including giving up on being managers). The person coming back wasn't part of that, didn't go through the forging process with you, and those of you who were managers feel that it's unfair that she, in effect, did less and is getting more, due primarily to what appears to be the favoritism of your boss. It seems far more fair to you that this new person coming back in should have to give up her managerial status and learn how to be a worker, just like you did.

So. All of this is very normal. It is normal for the friend to want to come back to the position most equivalent to the one she left. It is normal for the rest of you to resent her for, in effect, disrespecting the work that you all went through. It is normal for the PO to want to try to give his friend what she wants. It sounds like your manager has handled it badly, trying to get what he wants without admitting that's what he's trying for, and that's regrettable.

So what can you do?

First, I note that you're not being fair to your PO. In the same post, you describe him as "working crazy hours" and having poor work ethics. These two things do not go together.

Second, it sounds like your PO/Manager might be trying to avoid conflict. The friend sounds like she is highly motivated and dynamic. She's come back from maternity leave, which means that she is energized and bored out of her mind, and her ambitions have been painfully constrained for some time. She's also a good friend of his. The rest of you are a solid block with a great deal of internal cohesion and a solid idea of The Way Things Should Be, and you're also every single one of his subordinates. He's trying to not get into a fight with either side (he loses either way), and given that both of you are going to him with diametrically opposed demands, that's not working out so well for him.

So... basically, if that's the case, you have four options. You can convince the friend, you can go over the PO's head to the CEO, you can lean on the PO hard enough that he decides he'd rather burn his friend than burn the rest of you, or you can fold (or you can walk).

  • Pushing your PO so hard that he decides to burn his friend instead is unlikely to end well. It's going to be an ugly, ugly fight, because it's literally a matter of convincing him that fighting you is worse than fighting her. That's going to leave your PO all kinds of unhappy at you, and it's going to leave you with a new coworker who's unhappy at all of you. I don't suggest it.

  • Convincing the friend is, honestly, the optimal case. It makes your PO happier, and it means that she has a much better chance of settling into the team well. You have some advantages here. She's just showed up. She came in like a storm, without really understanding the situation on the ground. You have people among you, even ex-managers, who have come to accept and appreciate the new form. It may be that if she can be convinced that it's not so much of a step down, she'll be willing to accept that fitting into a group that accepts her as a peer will be better than managing a group that resents her as an unfair outsider. Of course, it's also difficult, for much the same reason as why your manager doesn't want to give her his PO position.

  • Going to the CEO... may or may not work. If it does work, it's likely to upset your manager. It may upset the CEO themselves. It won't be as ugly as leaning on your manager directly, though.

  • You can, of course, just accept it, and let them have what they want.

  • You can decide it's no longer worth working there and leave.

I'd say... try to convince the friend. Sit down and talk with them, honestly. Talk with them about what they want, and what the situation is, and what you all have been through, and why you feel that this is unfair, and see how much you can give them of what they want without being unfair to yourselves. Make sure they have enough time to say their piece without interruption. One of your big hurdles here is that they don't want to be forced to give up their old role and status. The more respect you can give them, the easier it will be to convince them to bend, the more likely they are to honestly communicate what they actually want, and the more likely you are to be able to come to some sort of mutually agreeable solution. You might be well-served to have the conversation be one-on-one.

  • Thank you for thinking thru all the options and considering all the sides in this situation! – E.S. Jan 18 at 22:46
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but the team was adamant that we needed a working bee like the others and not a second manager so our PO promised us to talk to her friend.

Reading between the lines I think it's safe to say that the gist of that talk was "I want to come back as a PO", "we can't make you a PO yet but we can bring you in as a PO in training". Like it or not your manager (presumably with his boss's approval) has taken this person into a role that has "PO in training" as an objective. If you need a "working bee" then lobby for hiring a new person in such a role.

she didn't get to eat humble pie for two years like the rest of us

How would you handle a new hire who doesn't chow down on aforementioned pie? Would you resent them also?

to find her place in our team of equals

You have a Manager/PO - you aren't a "team of equals"

Team members minus Friend agreed in a meeting that no colleague can have an elevated position, no matter how knowledgeable they are

So you all had a despicable little meeting behind this colleage's back where you decided how things are going to be? You sound like a lovely, welcoming bunch.

Is it wise to escalate this issue?

No.. you'll look mean spirited, jealous and petty.

What else can be done?

Take a look at your own behavior, "Team spirit" in this situation would be working with a new/returning team member and helping them adjust and settle in. Not bitching behind their back and plotting to sabotage them in the first few days.

  • Thank you for taking time to type it all. You are right, the miscommunication and favoritism made us a resentful bunch in a matter of days. The PO doesn't want to vacate their position; they want to keep a dedicated helper-friend despite it being completely out of line with the scrum process. I have edited the question accordingly. – E.S. Jan 17 at 14:13
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Here's a suggestion. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the person who's just back from maternity leave and working part time. Keep in mind there's a long history of making life hard for women in that position, and that she is probably motivated to hang on to the parts of her work that have the chance of helping her land on her feet after maternity leave.

This isn't about you or your manager or your company. It's an issue everywhere.

If she perceives your team is ganging up on her, she's going to push back, and she will ask your manager to push back too. She may think, with good historical reason, her career depends on it. It's better to avoid escalating this into a conflict.

Talk to her, one on one, in a friendly and cooperative spirit. Speak for yourself only; explain that you hope, personally, to have your expertise recognized, just as she does. Tell her of your challenges adapting to the new way of working, ask her about her challenges. Offer to work together on something. If she believes you have her back while she's working part time, she'll have your back too.

And, honestly, keep in mind that your company may intend for her to reclaim her former manager position when she's back full time. In many countries they cannot demote her upon return from maternity leave.

Also, what is this business about product owner and dev manager being the same person? Lots of companies think they're doing agile when they aren't really.

  • Thank you for your input. You are right - not factually (you couldn't know), but very much in spirit. That Friend is not the problem; the PO/Manager is. I'll amend the question. – E.S. Jan 18 at 20:51
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IMHO, you should escalate the matter to HR / parent company

But be ready for retaliation, favoritism is a double edged sword, your report would have to include manager behavior as well and subsequently backfire on to you.

Unless entire team will sign the report and be ready for Italian-type work-process for a while before current PO is removed / replaced.

Or you can be pushed out as a result.

Except for you, no one can make this decision.

  • Thank you for your input. On what grounds can such an escalation happen? I mean, the PO doesn't harass anybody, they just play favorites and that's not explicitly against any guidelines. Same with telling half-truths. Also, the company can't really afford to lose any of us because we're dramatically short-staffed as it is. – E.S. Jan 17 at 16:11
  • @E.S. "PO in training" obviously doesn't want to be "one of the group", doesn't give flying **** to what anyone is thinking. Already behaving as PO, doesn`t do her "peer" job. etc. all from your post. in this case only 3 ways, shut up, leave or make a stink and be ready to go all the way – Strader Jan 17 at 20:57
  • HR Is Not Your Friend. – O. Jones Jan 18 at 17:37
  • In this case it is – Strader Jan 18 at 18:14
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It's not high-school. Simply speak your mind.

"Steve, you're cherry picking all the good tasks. I want to do that one."

or

"Boss, I've done four grunt work tasks in a row, and Steve got four puff tasks. Can we either assign puff tasks equitably or pay me far more."

or

"Boss, I want position P now for salary S."

or

"Boss, you seem to have given Jane the XYZ role. She is incompetent. You should give the role to me."

Again, "it's not high-school".

Simply speak your mind, clearly and professionally.

If you don't get the result you want, leave.

  • While speaking your mind is good, all of you examples come across as having a "prima donna" aspect as well as a large does of "zero sum game" and hence sound like they are coming from a high school student. IMHO attitudes like that don't advance the company as a whole. – Peter M Jan 17 at 14:37

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