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Proxy Product Owner Role

April 06, 2011

The Product Owners are like a ‘mini CEOs’. CEOs are held responsible for return on investment and are answerable to their stakeholders. Not many companies go around having a proxy CEO. Yet somehow, several companies feel comfortable in using a proxy Product Owner.

We’ll take the case of Amanda, our imaginary Product Owner.

Amanda is a senior business manager and is an overwhelmingly busy person. She is familiar with Scrum and has attended Scrum introduction course. The company is trying to adapt Scrum. So her project is following Scrum. Amanda has been tasked to come up with a Product Backlog and attend planning, review and retrospective meetings. But she does not seem to have enough time. She already has too many other things to take care of.

The ScrumMaster for this project been trying to work with Amanda to get the Product Backlog sorted. Amanda initially did some work on the Product Backlog, but has not since given the required time to update it. Instead, she has nominated a ‘proxy’ Product Owner. She gives all her input to this newly minted proxy. The proxy Product Owner will take care of things from there on. The Proxy Product Owner will attend all Scrum ceremonies. Proxy Product Owner will work with the team. Everybody wins. Well, almost.

The project kicked off. They planned to release after four Sprints. Team was busy building the functionality, Proxy Product Owner had hard time talking to the Amanda, but things kept moving at a decent pace. The project was getting a good buzz around the company. People were using it as an example of how Scrum can help the company in building new products, building quality right in and getting early feedback.

Unfortunately, Amanda was too busy to have a look at project. She got all her information from the proxy Product Owner. Now the project was in fourth Sprint and they were planning to ship at the end of this sprint. The team was feeling great. Amanda was invited to the review meeting.

As it turned out, Amanda was not very excited about what she saw. It was not exactly the thing she wanted. There were a lot of red faces in the meeting. The team felt aghast. Amanda was frustrated. Proxy Product Owner was confused. The meeting was a disaster.

Proxy Product Owner is a pattern companies use to hide their problems. This patten stems from

  1. Companies not understanding the role of the Product Owner
  2. Companies paying lip service to Scrum
  3. Lack of commitment

Companies not understanding the role of the Product Owner

The Product Owner is, at times, taken as a more of a clerical role. The Product Owner role is often limited to creating, writing and maintaining items, usually user stories, in the Product Backlog. They attend planning meetings and then come back in the review meetings to inspect the work the team has produced.

The real role of the Product Owner is to maximize value. The Product Owner works with the team to ensure that the company is getting maximum return on its investment. Creating and maintaining the Product Backlog is just one aspect of this job. The Product Owner should manage the Product and work with the team to get the maximum results. This work is too important to be be delegated.

Companies paying lip service to Scrum

Companies are used to assign people to several projects at a time. This lowers productivity. A Product Owner working on several projects at a time is not likely to be very effective.

Lack of commitment and accountability

In some companies which as just transforming to Scrum, the Product Owner is not even a full time role. People are asked to be Product Owners while doing their regular day jobs. Of course, there is no way these Product Owners can work effectively. These Product Owners then find proxies.

Is the person doing the Product Owner job committed to it? Is it her main responsibility? Or is this something she ‘also does’, along with her day job.

Product Owners must be accountable for the work they are doing. The Product Owner is a very powerful role in Scrum. The Product Owner shapes the future of the product. She plays a crucial role in its success or failure. A great Product Owner is an essential ingredient in the formula to develop, launch and maintain great products and deliver value to the customers. But all of this comes with accountability. Are your Product Owners empowered and accountable? If a Product Owner’s job and career depends on doing a great Product Owner job, it’s very hard to imagine a Product Owner who’d delegate this piece of work to a proxy.

Learn more about Scrum, Product Owner role and Agile in one of Scrum Master Certification Courses.

© Faisal Mahmood

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