Succeeding with Agile - Mike Cohn's Blog

The Fallacy of “One Throat to Choke”

In speaking with some agile teams and agile project management consultants I occasionally hear two statements that I strongly disagree with. These statements are that “the product owner is the single wringable neck on the project” or that the “product owner is the one throat to choke.”

These each mean the same thing, that in an agile project, the product owner is the person ultimately responsible for the success of the project. This is wrong, however. On an agile project—as well as in many other cases—there is no single, wringable neck. To say there is a way of releasing the rest of the team from responsibility. And this is clearly wrong. From a manager’s perspective it can be nice to always be able to point to one person and say, “That’s who I’ll blame if things go wrong.” Howerver in agile project management the “one throat to choke” argument is false. Historically, there may be one person who takes the blame for things when they go wrong, but that doesn’t mean that person was responsible for the failure.

Take the case of a sports team. At the start of a new season, who on a sports team do we say we’ll hold responsible for winning the championship? The coach? The owner? The star player? Teams that win championships find a way to win games, no matter the circumstances. If the game plan isn’t working, the coach and players adapt. If the star player is having a bad day, someone else steps up. The whole team feels responsible for winning somehow, some way. If the team loses, it may be tempting to blame one person or another, but the team knows that each one of them is accountable for the loss. It’s never just one person’s fault. In reality, there is no single, wringable neck.

Consider a nonsports analogy. If both parents were involved in raising a child (and assuming one of them isn’t abusive or obviously negligent), which parent is the one throat to choke if a child grows up to be a convicted felon? There is a reason we call it a parental unit. Raising a child is a team effort. The only way to ever create an environment of shared ownership and responsibility is to let go of the notion of having one throat to choke. That doesn’t mean no one is responsible. That means that on a successful team, the team members must do their part, or even go beyond a perceived role, to ensure that the team reaches its goals.

About the Author

Mike Cohn is the founder of Mountain Goat Software, a process and project management consultancy that specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of Agile processes and techniques. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile. Mike is a co-founder of the Agile Alliance. He is also a co-founder and current board member of the Scrum Alliance. He can be reached at info@mountaingoatsoftware.com or connect with Mike on Google+.