The Importance of Proxy Product Owners in Agile

By: Prasad Eswara, Senior Manager

The Product Owner role in an organization is a pivotal one; the role of a Product Owner in an organization that has adopted Agile or Enterprise Scaled Agile (SAFe) is even more essential, meaningful, and significant.

So, what exactly is the role of a Product Owner? An effective Product Owner:

• Defines the vision;

• Keeps the product backlog groomed, organized, and prioritized;

• Oversees development stages and negotiates requirements with the development team;

• Anticipates client needs;

• Acts as the primary liaison;

• Ensures understanding across a Scrum team;

• Evaluates the progress of the product.

Every leader in an organization, regardless of its size, should understand how the Product Owner role impacts the products and projects that are being worked on. It’s also important to understand that the establishment of a competent and skilled product owner is the most important way to carry the vision of the organization through implementation.

So why is it that time and time again I come across organizations that decide to “cut corners” and create a new Scrum Role called “The Proxy Product Owner”?

What is the role of a Proxy Product Owner? Well, a Proxy Product Owner is someone that fills in for the role of a true, skilled, and engaged Product Owner. Their job, in a nutshell, is to do some of the tasks of the Product Owner’s job for them. Given that these proxies aren’t typically trained Product Owners, their job is to do the less glamorous stuff – meeting with stakeholders, writing user stories, attending scrum meetings, etc.

Not bad, right?

Wrong! Establishing a new role of a Proxy Product Owner is an expeditious way of collapsing an entire Agile transformation effort.

Here’s why:

The Product Owner role is the “be all and end all” role in Agile and Scrum. Product Owners design, structure, confirm, and articulate the vision of a product or initiative; they also regulate and prioritize which component of a product is the most important. Product Owners are also skilled at keeping stakeholders leveled by telling them “no” when appropriate and “yes” when feasible as well.

In essence, Product Owners possess a certain type of jurisdiction that is required, so when that authority is diminished by parsing work into a role in Agile and Scrum that was never supposed to be there in the first place, “Will the real Product Owner stand up?” becomes the inevitable question.

This also sets a dangerous precedent for future Product Owners that try to do their proper job but aren’t able to because they aren’t viewed legitimately by stakeholders and Scrum team members; team members begin to think “we don’t like the answers we get from Product Owner A, so we will now ask Product Owner B instead.”

Would it be ok to have the Scrum Master or other team members help the Product Owner? It would absolutely be ok for others on the team to help the Product Owner with their job because that is what mature Agile teams do. However, at the end of the day, helpers are just that – helpers – who are not “proxy” anything. If leaders in an organization are choosing to put in Proxy Product Owners because the actual or “real” Product Owner isn’t able to do his/her job, replace them with the right type of Product Owner. That is the harsh reality of how the world works – not everyone can perform every role to the level necessary to make the team successful; if they cannot, someone else will need to take their place.

The Product Owner role is one that is extremely important, and it should not be to be filled weakly.

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