The Commons Trap: How Invisible “Owners” Devour Your Team’s Potential


The Rock Crusher Village calls out two ownership roles: a backlog owner with content authority over the entire backlog and one or more solution owners who own backlog items (rocks) for the specific solutions the team delivers. The two potentially conflicting ownership roles were derived from our repeated observations of backlogs with many hidden “product owners.” This situation creates a “tragedy of the commons,” where unrestrained self-interest results in overutilization of limited team capacity, leading to dire economic consequences for the enterprise. [see Its not all about costs, its about all costs. ] Using the Rock Crusher Canvas, we can critically examine all the roles individuals are really playing with respect to the backlog and not the ones we believe they are playing. By making the roles visible, the enterprise can call attention to conflicting and destructive self-interests and apply Rock Crusher ownership practices to restore flow.

The Backlog as a Tragedy of the Commons

A common pattern of behavior we observed with many clients is there are many backlogs hidden within the team’s backlog. There is not one product owner but rather multiple individuals competing to bend the team to their priorities. While there was supposedly a designated product owner, they were more often an unempowered subject matter expert and/or analyst than a product owner. Or they were completely disinterested in the day-to-day functioning of the team. Especially if they were “from the business.” A simple tool to discover if the individual designated as the product owner is the product owner is to ask them if they can say “No, we are not doing that” for any item in the backlog. If they hesitate, temporize, or otherwise defer their answer, then they are not the product owner. They defer to some other possibly unknown individual(s) with the real authority to say “no.” Or worse, no one owns the backlog.

When patterns of ownership are unclear then self-interest and magical thinking takes over. Without an overarching backlog content authority, the team is left on its own to manage the excessive demand for work pushed on them by competing, self-interested solution owners. This situation is analogous to what is known as the ”tragedy of the commons,”[1] when many people enjoy unfettered access to a finite, valuable resource and overuse it. The economic consequences of this situation are disastrous [see Its not all about costs it’s about all costs ]. Worse, these consequences are often invisible because far too many enterprises use performance oriented metrics to measure outputs (e.g., velocity) and do not measure outcomes.

Using the Rock Crusher Canvas to Discover Ownership Patterns

The Rock Crusher Canvas can become a powerful tool to understand who really is the backlog owner and has decision-making authority over the backlog and who are the solution owners who need to coordinate with that backlog owner to decide what will get done and what will not. The third step of the Rock Crusher Canvas asks you to discover who is in the Rock Crusher Village, who are the individuals that are accountable, responsible, consulted, or informed when managing the backlog. Who really owns the backlog and has the final say on the priority of all rocks (backlog items) for the team? Who owns the solution(s) and prioritizes rocks for the solution? Who are the subject matter experts across both the business and technical domains who must be consulted? Who are the analysts turning ambiguous hopes and dreams into actionable backlog items (Rocks)? Who are the team members who must clearly understand the intent of the backlog items and assess what it will take to deliver the intended value.? Who are the Stakeholders that must be consulted on important decisions? Who are the Customers that we must keep informed of our decisions? Many individuals will be playing multiple roles, and we use the Rock Crusher Canvas to clarify the role(s) everyone associated with the backlog is playing.

Thinking Critically to See What Is True and Not What We Want to Believe Is True

Organizational theorist Karl Wieck explained our inability to see our true organizational reality with the pithy quote “believing is seeing.”[2] The Canvas asks us to think critically about our backlog’s environment. The biggest mistake you can make is automatically filling in the existing nominated product owner as the backlog owner and the solution owner.  The purpose of the Rock Crusher Canvas is to help you think critically and challenge your beliefs about individuals’ roles regarding the backlog, especially with the ownership roles. Who really has content authority over ALL the content in the team backlog? Who can really say, “No, we are not doing that,” and toss that rock out the waste gate? Can anyone you know who is associated with the backlog say that? You may discover no one is playing the role of the backlog owner despite whatever job title they may have.

Using the Rock Crusher to Mitigate Ownership Conflict

When used to reveal ownership roles, the benefit of the Rock Crusher canvas is that we can decide if the current situation is acceptable or use the Rock Crusher canvas to design an improved future state. For example, a very common small team situation the designated “product owner” is really an analyst and subject matter expert who is theoretically accountable for the team’s value delivery.  However, in reality, this individual does not have or believe they have the authority to say “no.”  When such a situation is revealed, we can either discover the “real backlog owner” or ask the supposed existing product owner if they are willing to take on the backlog ownership role.

We have found that in many situations, once the real backlog owner is discovered – in one case, it was the CEO – that individual will either step up as the backlog owner or delegate their content authority to the previously designated backlog owner. Another situation is the designated backlog owner does not believe they have content authority. We cannot tell you how often a frustrated backlog owner tried to justify pushing too much work onto a team by saying, “we have no choice, we have to get this done.” Not only does this reveal a lack of clarity on content authority is also reveals a damaging lack of strategy[3].

Chapter 4 of “The Rock Crusher” provides multiple ownership patterns for managing backlog and solution ownership dynamics. In many cases, the same individual may play both the backlog ownership and solution ownership roles. In other situations, different individuals play these roles, and the Rock Crusher Village provides several patterns of collaboration for holistically managing a flow of value delivery.

While we try to paint a wonderful picture of the utility of the Rock Crusher Canvas, it is simply a tool to help you think critically about your backlog. We have observed that many clients treat the backlog as a given, a passive work queue and not as a powerful value management tool. If you believe the backlog is more than just a passive requirements reservoir, then it is time to start thinking critically about our backlog and discover who has the authority to manage value. More importantly, who should have the authority to manage value?


[2] Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations: SAGE Publications.

[3] My favourite definition of strategy comes from Michael Porter: “Strategy is the art of knowing what not to do.”