Why Scrum teams fail: How to innovate faster with product ownership


The Scrum framework has seen tremendous growth in recent years as more organizations seek a more agile way to work. And Scrum has become their preferred way of doing so. This choice has largely been driven by the Scrum framework’s ability to set clear boundaries, which allows teams to continue operating while providing the space they need to find the approach that works best for them.

Yet, despite these advantages many Scrum adoptions still fail. While there are many reasons for this, the blame for a disturbingly large number of these failures can be attributed to the team’s product owner. The product owner is responsible for maximizing the return on the investment, which the sponsoring organization is making in that team. So, while the developers on the Scrum team are responsible for doing the work assigned to the team, the product owner is responsible for ensuring the team is working on the right work.

Scrum teams: Understanding the importance of the product owner

So, why look to the product owner when things start going south? The reasons are startlingly simple. Many product owners underestimate their importance to the success of the team. And often, they’re disengaged from their teams during the sprint. But, this is when their teams need them the most. Others understand their importance to their teams, but lack the training and skills necessary to give the team the help they need.

As the individual on the team who is accountable for the success of the product, the product owner is arguably the most important role on the entire team. In fact, the product owner is so important, it was quite popular (until recently) to refer to the them as the “single wringable neck” of the Scrum team. Whenever a Scrum team fails to deliver a successful product, regardless of the underlying reason, many organizations hold the product owner accountable for this.

Despite this importance, the product owner is actually the role that gets the least attention when most teams begin their adoption of the Scrum framework. Guidance on a product owner’s basic responsibilities – much less how they can be more effective in their role – is shockingly scarce compared to more well-established roles, like the Scrum master or the development team. Even the Scrum Guide itself (the canonical reference on how to implement the Scrum framework) spares no more than half of a page to this critical role.

How product owners can help their Scrum teams

1. Engage more
When a product owner is disengaged from their Scrum team, the team may struggle to fully understand the vision of the product they’re building. This often results in missed opportunities for the team to identify less expensive, more effective ways to realize that vision—which ultimately help the organization realize a return on their investment more quickly.

2. Be detailed
But even for teams who have fully absorbed the vision for their product, misunderstandings can still happen. Failure to add enough detail to the items the team is working on can mean the team is forced to make assumptions about the true intent of each item. And, if the product owner isn’t available to clarify those assumptions, then incorrect assumptions may not be caught until the sprint review, when it’s too late.

3. Create a clear product backlog
However, properly illuminating the product backlog can help alleviate this. The product backlog should represent both the vision for the product as well as a clear strategy for how to realize that vision. When this is done correctly, product owners can remove much of the guesswork from how a team can most successfully bring that product to market. Not only will this result in less rework since misunderstandings will be caught more quickly, but it will also mean the development team can create value as there will be less ambiguity around the intent of each item.

This doesn’t mean, however, that product owners should provide too much detail in their product backlog items. Over-specifying these items can cause teams to feel constrained in how they can approach the problem which can reduce the chances of a team developing a novel solution for achieving the goal of an item. 

Scrum benefits for product owners: Moving faster than the competition

While development teams often reap the benefits of a successful Scrum adoption, these benefits are two-fold.

Few product owners are lucky enough to envision a product that’s a perfect fit for their market on the first try. Product owners should expect to take several attempts to find the proper fit for their product and to be prepared to weather their fair share of failures along the way. Experimentation, perseverance and a good measure of patience are key to correctly identify the users who are most likely to benefit from your product, and their specific needs your product can fulfill. For this reason, successful products are usually not the products that hit a homerun on the first try. Instead, they’re the products that were able to identify and eliminate the places in the market where they didn’t fit—and do it faster than their competitors.

Hence, why the cadenced nature of the Scrum framework makes it ideal for establishing a pattern of repeated experiments and learning. Product owners are able to quickly iterate through different options to identify where their product fits in the market while limiting their exposure to much risk along the way.  

Using Scrum as a discovery framework

Modern product development is a process of discovery, and teams that innovate more will discover the solution their users want—and they’ll do it faster. Scrum provides teams with a framework in which they can run multiple experiments to determine where their product will be most successful, and product owners who recognize this value will be better-positioned to create successful products.

Learn more: Product Owner Fundamentals – Foundations of Product Ownership


Jeremy Jarrell

Jeremy is an agile coach and author who helps teams get better at doing what they love. He is heavily involved in the technology community, both as a highly rated speaker throughout the United States and as a syndicated author whose articles and videos have appeared in numerous well-regarded industry publications.