The Danger of a Proxy Product Owner

Imagine that you’ve read the Scrum Guide’s description of Product Owner role. You  see that in order to be effective, a Scrum Product Owner needs to

  • Keep the Product Backlog groomed
  • Ensure understanding amongst the Scrum Team, and
  • Negotiate with the Development Team

That takes a lot of time and energy. You realize that the role is so involved that you can’t possibly have your current “product owner” fulfill the Scrum duties as well. You are contemplating using a “Proxy” product owner to fulfill the Scrum Product Owner’s duties. The Proxy Product Owner will not be the real product owner, but they represent the product owner and have the responsibility for communicating the product owner’s perspective with the team.

To fulfill these responsibilities, of a Product Owner, the individual in the role must have the

  • time to do the work completely
  • knowledge of the product and customers’ needs
  • authority to make decisions

Can a Proxy Product Owner be effective? Is it a good idea? Will that work? Let’s explore it a little bit.

Proxy Product Owner

The term “Proxy Product Owner” is sometimes used when somebody in the organization has an existing title of Product Manager or Product Owner. There may already be a position description that corresponds to a title of “Product Owner.” In those cases, it can be valuable to differentiate the Scrum Product Owner from the other duties that are wrapped into the existing title of Product Owner.

A “proxy” is someone who can make decisions on behalf of another. If the person filling the Scrum Product Owner role can completely and truly fill all the responsibilities outlined in the Scrum Guide, then you have a Scrum Product Owner. And, if calling them a “Proxy” Product Owner is synonymous with Scrum Product Owner, and helps differentiate the Scrum activities from the other organizational activities that are across the two Product Owner titles, then it can work well.

What is the danger of having a Proxy Product Owner? Many times when I hear “Proxy Product Owner” used, it is used as a euphemism for one of these other types of Product Owner:

Dysfunctional Product Owner Models

The Ignorant Product Owner They lack the knowledge necessary to fulfill the role. They are constantly having to go out and gather understanding from someone else who truly has it. Or, worse, they guess at the answer and inject wastefull activity into the team.
The Impotent Product Owner They have no power to make decisions. They have to go play "mother may i...." with people who really make decisions. This delay negatively impacts the team.
The Indecisive Product OwnerThey have all the information and authority to make decisions, but they're still incapable of deciding. The causes of indecisiveness vary, from fear of punishment for wrong decisions to over-analysis.
The Overworked Product OwnerThis person simply has too much work for one human to do. It is impossible for them to keep the team supplied with a properly groomed backlog, leading to frustrating and ineffective Sprint Planning and delivery.

Overworked Product Owners can neither keep the backlog groomed nor be available to the team.

An Indecisive Product Owner can kill the team’s momentum.

 

 

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