To proxy, or not to proxy

Suppliers have been struggling a lot with the fact that SCRUM only defines two roles (next to the development team); Product Owner and SCRUM Master. That’s why they called in the Proxy Product Owner, a role which is mostly played by the traditional project manager on the side of the supplier. The idea is that you’ve got one Product Owner on the side of the customer and one Proxy on the side of the supplier. Both Product Owners interact with each other and the development team has got a short line to a Product Owner, namely the Proxy Product Owner.

Although it sounds pretty OK to you at first, having some sort of Proxy Product Owner is not the way to go. I will explain myself in a bit. But first lets address the reasons why you may want to have a Proxy Product Owner:

  • The Product Owner (the customer) is too busy
  • The Product Owner (the customer) does not control the SCRUM proces as much as the supplier does
  • The distance between the Product Owner and the supplier is too big
  • The supplier is in need of more control

All (but one) are legit reasons. Because lets face it, nothing is more frustrating than a Product Owner who does not respond to your e-mails, attend stand-up meetings and still communicate through big piles of documents.

SCRUM believes in a Product Owner which stands next to or very close to the business and their stakeholders. A representative of the business, who feels and can be held responsible for the end result.

Now back to the Proxy Product Owner, this semi-Product Owner is nowhere near the description I just gave you. There’s even a conflict of interest. The chance your development team delivers something your Proxy Product Owner likes and isn’t in line with the expectations of the business grows larger.

Now also consider one of the reasons SCRUM is invented is to cut off the ‘middle’ man, then why would you reintroduce him into your proces?

Lets skip this Proxy Product Owner role and look at the solutions for the issues you are facing:

1. The Product Owner (the customer) is too busy

When you find your Product Owner is too busy doing other stuff, then the first thing you can do as supplier is focus on the things you really need from your Product Owner. Which should be prioritizing user stories and feedback based on your releases. As supplier or rather SCRUM Master you plan and coordinate this so your team has the (minimal) requirements to finish their work. If your Product Owner doesn’t have the time to attend every daily stand-up meeting, no worries. Make sure your SCRUM Master contacts the Product Owner before the meeting starts and asks for a prioritized list. Now if you need input just collect your questions and let your SCRUM Master discuss this with your Product Owner.
Make sure you have at least two weekly meetings with your Product Owner. One to talk about the upcoming sprint, and one to discuss the feedback given about the release. If your Product Owner cannot live up to these expectations you should address this including the risk ending up with a failed project. Maybe at this point it would be wise to appoint a new Product Owner.

2. The Product Owner (the customer) does not control the SCRUM proces as much as the supplier does

It’s always a good thing to coach your customer into the ways of SCRUM and maybe suggest a Product Owner course – maybe even pay for it. But again it’s all about focus. If you make sure your Product Owner attends their meetings, give feedback and prioritize the user stories, then there is nothing to worry about. You only have to teach and coach him into the right direction. Make sure you have an experienced interaction designer in your team who can translate wishes into user stories and all you have to do is place this guy next to your Product Owner. And all the rest can be delegated to the SCRUM Master. As long as you leave the real decision making up to your Product Owner and stakeholders everything should be fine and dandy. Pay attention and you will notice your Product Owner will learn along the way. So next time you will be told what to do.

3. The distance between the Product Owner and the supplier is too big

There are two options: you either make a lot of conference calls or you let your team work onsite. There is nothing in between. (Off course you can always ask if your Product Owner wants to work offsite but we all know this isn’t going to happen.)

4. The supplier is in need of more control

Deal with the fact you are no longer in control but the business is. After all it’s their money.

Enough solutions to help you on the way to eliminate the Proxy Product Owner. The decision is yours to make, but if you do want to introduce a Proxy Product Owner at least take note of above mentioned risks.

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