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I took over the job of a product owner in a scrum team (size: about 10 people) a few months ago (where I was a part of the development team for a few years before). The team is one of about 20-30 teams in a bigger project and we get directly a lot of pressure from the customer.

Since our team is covering many features and components, we always try to have as many substitutes as possible for each feature. However, for one topic of the team, someone was hired (let's call him Adam) and promised a special role within the team that he should be completely responsible for these topics. Since the old product owner did not have great interest in that topic, he did not question the special role of Adam. So, the old product owner was the interface to all other teams, management and customer, expect for that one special topic.

However, Adam is not very efficient in handling those "communicative" topics and spends about half of his with non-productive activities caused by the special role he got (e.g., while the old product owner and also me can take part in a phone call with management, we can answer multiple customer mails in parallel and think about priority while Adam is fully occupied with one activity, ...). When there was a priority on one of his topics, he requested people into his "subteam" and defined himself to a "sub product owner" who was doing a second stand-up, planning, etc. This caused him to develop very few lines of code in such situations (though he is calculated as fully developer).

Since we now get much more pressure from the customer and the team is smaller than before (two people left), we decided to bundle all these communication to me as product owner in order to give all the developers as much time for development as possible. This was backup by the senior management. But for me it seems that Adam does not accept this. A few examples:

  • I am having meetings from time to time with other teams when we have finished work packages they need; and the meetings are very high level (without any technical questions) as "We need you to finish A until May since we then need to begin with B", but he insists of joining because it is about "this" topics
  • There is a project wide prioritization that we are tracked for some topics and some other topics are already decided to have lower priority (which was hard work to that such a decision). However, Adam is conducting meetings with people for these low prio topics without notifying me (leading to much unfinished work).
  • Acceptance criteria for work packages are extended on this own without discussing that with the team and without adjusting the needed time.

All in all, what is finished is good, but due to this behavior, I would say that I can only give priority for about 20% of this time; for the rest Adam is doing what he wants. The remaining team is also not so happy about this.

I spoke to his senior manager (who is also mine) about the situation, but he does not want to take away the "special role" of Adam; and he fears that Adam might leave the team where he criticizes Adams. From my technical impression (as I was part of the team), the topics of Adam are not so complicated that a few people can learn and to be substitutes of these topics (which is very important in case of vacation, parental leaves, etc.). But my feeling is that Adam does not let anyone to dig deeper into this topics (not clear if conscious or unconscious).

What can I do to improve the situation? My main goal is to increase the overall output of the team and to keep the atmosphere within the team as good as possible.

In particular what are the disadvantages of the following ideas?

  • Stricter tracking of Adam's tasks (or of the whole team)?
  • Direct confrontation with the risk that my senior manager is unhappy with that and Adam might want to leave?
  • Insist of finding substitutes for every small topic (even if that might take longer now)?
  • Make him personally responsible in front of the management for "his" topics?
  • Give him topics which can be tracked more easy and which are not popular in the rest of team?
  • Just accept the situation as it is and save time?
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    Isn't the product owner usually someone from outside the development team (but, together with the scrum master and the development team, part of the scrum team)? If you've already turned the role of product owner on its head, it seems a bit fiddly to complain about one developer being "impure". – ObscureOwl Feb 15 at 0:06
  • If someone states they are afraid that Adam might leave, then you state in your most convincing voice that your team doesn't need Adam, that you have several people who can do his work more efficiently, and that you have no idea why he has this special role. – gnasher729 Feb 15 at 22:47
  • why the downvotes? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Feb 17 at 6:29
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    the question can benefit from shortening. Right now it occupies 2 screens on my laptop – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Feb 17 at 17:37
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Address the Bus Factor first - give other people tasks that would normally fall within Adam's remit. Get other people in the same technical area up to speed on Adams work. Give Adam sufficient 'make work' tasks that he can't argue with this based on his availability.

Once that is in place, assign tasks to Adam in exactly the same way that you assign them to other team members - take away his 'special' designation. You may find that Adam decides to knuckle down (unlikely), or leave - but by that time, you'll have sufficient people trained in his area that without him, productivity might even go up.

Also, do not invite Adam to meetings that are above his pay grade. The next time he gatecrashes one, take him aside after the meeting and remind him that he was not invited, and is not welcome, as it was not a technical meeting.

If he insists on being a 'sub product owner', then give him all the downsides to that pleasure also; he needs to find the budget for the staff, and schedule the workload so that it's complete within the given timeframe. If not, he has to answer to you.

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You've done everything you can.

and he fears that Adam might leave the team where he criticizes Adams.

Allude to the fact that this lack of clarity is bad for morale and that more team members (including yourself) might leave the team if this issue isn't taken care of.

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I believe you firm need to re-organise the roles and possibly change positions. Here it it why I think so :

  1. What’s the role of your manager? Exactly! (S)He should be the the PO and only work with a SCRUM master not a PO and an Adam (aka a semi PO and semi-developer)

  2. What happens in you retrospective meetings? Is there any? Are you invited? is Adam invited? (We know that PO’s are not invited in retro’s)

  3. Who is the SCRUM master? These impediments should be cleared by a SM.

  4. The SCRUM team members should be cross-functional, if your team is not, they hire some one who really is!(Now is the best time since you have two already left members)

The way you are developing your product is much more like the traditional project management rather than being a SCRUM project. You need to re-structure the whole team. And this is not only Adam’s fault. Your manager plays a vital rule here if he embrace these structural changes then there is hope, if s(he) doesn’t I strongly recommend to change your linkedin status to “open for new positions”.

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Just accept the situation as it is and save time?

This option is the one that is within your role and scope. Most of the rest is not actually your problem. You've already escalated your concerns and given reasoning. It's out of your hands so don't let it stress you out while you concentrate on fulfilling your own responsibilities.

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  • I'm not sure why this was downvoted. You have a developer with a special role who refuses to share knowledege. You're already down 2 people (20%) and have more pressure to do work. Can you afford to be down another person? and spare a couple of devs to take over this specially assigned workload? Why did this person even have a special role if it was so easy to do in the first place. – Shadowzee Feb 17 at 0:21
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You have a scrum team. Usually that means you plan what tasks should be done say in the next two weeks, and everyone picks tasks they want to do. Also, everybody should be able to do any task.

I suggest that you intentionally deviate from this for a few weeks. Mostly you let people pick their tasks, but you assign the tasks that Adam wants to do to other people who you trust that they will handle these tasks. If Adam protests, you tell him that this is your decision, that everyone in the team should be able to handle any tasks, and you expect him to pick some of the other tasks and handle them.

Then you see how it goes. If your other team members cannot handle Adam's tasks, that is too bad, you lost. On the other hand, if they handle Adam's tasks then you have in one swoop destroyed his special role. And he now has to show that he is a good developer.

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    Instead of assigning tasks manually you could also plan a sprint full of "Adam tasks" for everyone and then sprint full of "Team tasks". Instead of perfectly balancing the tasks. This will first force Adam to leave some of "his" tasks to other team members and in the second sprint force Adam to pick up some "team tasks". You can also encourage specific team members, that mentioned concerns themselves, to pick up "Adam tasks". This way it doesn't look like you are overstepping your role as PO. – Helena Feb 16 at 13:19

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