Secret Confessions of a Product Owner: "A Beautiful Dilemma"

 "Force me to make more decisions, more often." 

"Force me to make more decisions, more often." 

Working with a Development Team (Dev Team), they recently posed this question:

  • Dev Team:  Product Owner, what can we do to make our product more successful?

  • PO:  Force me to make more decisions, more often.  

  • Dev Team:  Tell us more…

The Product Owner role is exciting to me because it allows me to make decisions…real decisions!  In previous careers, the decisions I made were more dictated to me by Leadership and I was just the conduit of the information.  

As the Development Team, I would like your help to force me to make decisions…every day, if possible.  I call this a "Beautiful Dilemma".  

This is a fancy way to ask the Dev Team to get work to “done” so I am forced to make a decision to continue on this path or go in a different direction.  If you don't give me something that is complete to my definition of done, I have no decision to make; I have to take what you give me. 

I don’t always know what is going to make the Customers happy until I put it in front of them.  They think they know what they want, but just like anybody else, they speculate and guess about what they want. 

As the Product Owner, here is how I envision an ideal 10-day Sprint:

  • At Sprint Planning we commit to (for example) 5 Product Backlog Items (PBI)

  • I will order them by business value, 1 through 5 with 1 being the most important

  • The Dev Team works on PBI #1 first.  Around day 3 or 4 (if not earlier) they show me PBI #1 that meets my definition of done

  • Now I have a “Beautiful Dilemma”:  Do I accept this PBI and have the Dev Team move onto PBI #2 or do I have them keep working on PBI #1 and add more value?  This is the situation I want to be put in as a Product Owner.

  • Too often, all 5 PBIs get started on day 1 and they all come together around day 9.  By that point in the Sprint, I have no decisions to make.  I have to take what the Dev Team has produced (which may be amazing work). 

  • I would rather have a chance to “chase or cancel” the most important PBI

What is “chase and cancel”? 

This is a technique I learned by working with retail giants in the Twin Cities.  Merchandisers at giant retail organizations have 100s if not 1000s of products (SKUs) to manage.  They taught me that they cannot focus on all of them equally.  They break them down to the top 20% performing skus and the lowest 20% performing skus.

They “chase” the top 20% performing skus by putting them on the home page of the website, in the highest traffic areas in the store, or on the front page of a print advertisement.  They then work with their suppliers to make sure they can keep up with the increase in demand.  No retailer wants you to come into buy a specific product and then find it is out of stock.  If it is out of stock, you buy nothing and walk out.  If it is in-stock, you buy that product and usually put in about $50-$100 more into your cart. 

The merchants “cancel” the lowest 20% performing skus by putting them on the clearance racks or offering coupons.  They work with suppliers to cancel any incoming orders and make a note in the system to not offer that product for the foreseeable future. 

The 60% of the SKUs “in the middle” take care of themselves. 

This is how I want to develop our product.  Aggressively go after the 20% of the features the Customers want and will pay us for and ignore the 20% of the features that provide zero value and cost us money to maintain. 

Questions or Comments?  Feel free to start a conversation in the “comments” section or email me at

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Looking for more Product Owner Secrets?  Check out previous articles:

About the Author:  Tom Auld is the Product Owner, COO, and Agile Coach and Trainer for the Collaborative Leadership Team (CoLeadTeam).  CoLeadTeam is the premier Agile Consultancy providing certified and customized training classes, enterprise coaching, and individual mentoring that will set up your organization to reap the benefits of Agile and Scrum.  Connect with Tom on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @CoLeadTeam & @tcauld.