Product Owners not proxies

All too often, product managers opt out of being a Product Owner. They conspire for a business or product analyst being a “proxy” product owner. Of course, since most of the books and courses regarding the Product Owner have him/her as an appendage to the Scrum Team. All he/she has to do is write user stories and play planning poker, with INVEST. These manifestations of Product Owner come from developers defining what a Product Owner is.

Scrum does not define how to use the Product Backlog, or what the Product Owner should do. Yet, I do know that someone who is writing perfect user stories is not using Scrum to optimize the job of product management. They have become a business analyst, a requirements engineer.

Delegation of product owner responsibilities continues the deep divide between development and its customers. My concept of the Scrum Master was that they were going to bridge the divide. The Scrum Master would to teach the business how to be agile by fulfilling the role of the Product Owner. The Scrum Master was going to help the PO understand how to take advantage of opportunities, to optimize value, and how to collaborate with the team. In no way did I envision the Product Owner becoming a business analyst that was responsible for requirements engineering.

Scrum has been driven from the (software) development community. I think this causes us to see the Product Owner in our eyes. What can they do to help us do better. We haven’t seen them through their eyes, responsible for a product,  thinking about how we in development can collaborate with the PO to help her do her job better.

The people in Product Management and customers have caught on. They have realized that we want them for ourselves, to help us do our work. They have fled, leaving behind a largely eviscerated Product Owner position, the Product Owner/Business Analyst. Of course, this simply reinforces waterfall, where someone is between the developers and the person in charge of the product and its use.

The Product Owner cannot be the Scrum Master. They both have clear interests and habits. Changing their individual habits is hard. Changing them so they can see both points of view is impossible. They first have to learn the new way of doing their job with agility.

I’m going to try to remedy this problem with a new product owner course that purely focuses on a Product Manager being agile. He/she can be using Scrum or any iterative incremental techniques, but the point is to be agile, value driven, and opportunistic – not to sit around and write user stories.


75 thoughts on “Product Owners not proxies

    • There is no CSPO course. There are many courses, each created by its provider (or taken from Mike and my course and changed). They all focus on user stories, poker, invest, kano analysis. So CSPO is an umbrella set of courses that provides a certification for attending. Useless.

      • That was way too harsh. Mike and I created the initial CSPO courses to address a need – we needed someone to make the Product Backlog work. That was good. However, with the law of unintended consequences, it undercut the connection we needed with the product manager, the real customer. Working a product backlog was requirements gathering to him/her, so we started losing the person that wants agility.

      • Ken, It is reality from which this evolution has started taking roots in the practice. Your post and observations are great, but you did not mention the root cause for the problem. With my limited experience, my observation leads to this root cause which is “lack of real PO in the organization”. In any large organization the ratio of the real PO(someone who actually has a view of the market/customer and who has a vision for the product) vs engineers is some thing around ~3 to ~200. So if you form 22-24 teams, these ~3 POs can not scale to the demands of the team. Hence the community has started falling back onto business analyst or architect to fill in the void.
        I look forward to hearing your comment

      • Hey rkochath,
        The idea of one Chief Product Owner and Aea Product Owners (one per area) can scale to the ratio that you’ve mentioned. Product Owners need to prioritize the backlog and ‘make sure’ that backlog items are clarified. The clarification itself doesn’t necessarily have to be done by the Product Owner herself. If a Product Owner is not outward focusing (as well as being inward focused as well) she will continue to be handed over work from real product management, the (explicit or implicit) contract to run it and all the blame and other nuisances that come with it.

  1. I share your concerns, Ken.

    I’m curious. What makes you think that a course about how to be a better PO(more agile, value driven, etc) is going to convince those in ‘the business’ to allocate budget for a full time, truly empowered, Product Management PO(PM-PO)?

    What if the software teams just send Business Analyst PO’s(BA-PO) to your course? Does that really help the situation substantially?

    I think what might also help are case studies demonstrating the ROI for a PM-PO over a BA-PO. That might actually inspire ‘the business’ to invest in a truly empowered PM-PO.

    Anyway, just some thoughts.

    • Excellent thought. That might rally them.
      I’m concerned that we don’t turn off more product managers that want to be agile and instead learn user stories.
      Also, as I’m doing engagements with organizations that want to be agile, I want something that directs their product managers and customers toward agility, not requirements engineering.

      • Ken, I think you are making wild assumptions that business analysts are requirement monkeys. This is not true and within the UK business analysts mostly work holistically across many business components, one of which is IT solutions. In doing this they are applying service, systems and lean thinking, and soft systems methodology. BA’s in the UK who complete the diploma in BA with the British Computer Society are trained to look beyond the IT and solve business problems. This training lends itself neatly to being a critical friend to the product owner or becoming a product owner, especially as the PO training I see doesn’t cover half of this. Saying that I don’t think we should be in a situation where we have to chose between a BA or a PO. BAs may go on to become business architects which can lead to business agility. Additionally, many BAs come from an IT background but have a natural flare for big picture. This means that they can also operate within a development team. One last point, not all IT projects deliver products. In fact, I would say that they deliver service or outcomes for a customer or business. Product management might work well for companies selling products, but others are trying to achieve efficiency, internal business change or turning an oil tanker to respond to new markets. They need business analysis for this, not product owners. Busness analysis has matured since the system analyst role of the 1980/90s. The training offered has also matured and is continuing to develop. From where I sit, the Product Owner is trying to develop the BA skills we have been training BAs in for the past 15 years (UK BA’s that is, I can’t speak for other countries).

      • i want some research papers about the proxy product owner. proxy product owner is good,bad or ugly???kindly help me

      • @Sidra – in summary the product owner should be one role and not done by committee. If that one person cannot commit to doing the PO role then your project it is at risk. Due to this, there is no sense having someone do the PO role part time (i.e. proxy PO). Instead, the BA should support the PO or become the PO not a half way house. So the Proxy PO role should not exist and is bad. At the end of the day scrum has tried very hard to simplify the roles and condense then down to just 3 (PO, Scrum master and team). Is it really that hard to get those 3 roles right? You may find the following useful. 2-part blog called ‘BA Support for the Product Owner’ @ and also my new book which will be published in Feb 2017 called ‘Agile and Business Analysis’

  2. Great initiative. Having consistent courses on all Scrum roles is important. One gap was already filled with the PSD. Welcome to a good introduction on the role of the Product Owner that is so crucial and probable the least implemented one. Leading to the deficiencies that you touch in your article.
    And, as you rightfully remind us of, Business Involvement is crucial to build the software that they will use, sell, that real users will pay for, and that management expects return from!

  3. One classification of experts is 1) routine experts and 2) adaptive experts. The US army is starting an adaptable leader program, and is trying to adopt design thinking in its leadership. It would be interesting to see bits recognising routine/adaptable/design in a PO program.

  4. hi,
    i’m simple scrum master for 4years. i’m working in great avionic french company to put in place agile organization to create new information system.
    i propose to put in place a product owner proxy in place of product owner and users become product owner in place of stakeholder : the goal is to involve the users in the new model organization
    do you think i corrupt Scrum when i plan to do that ?
    thanks for your help
    best regards

  5. I completely agree that it is dangerous for the PO to become a glorified requirements manager or a proxy to ‘product management’. All too often I see POs who have no actual product responsibility at all: they just prioritise the backlog and write user stories based on the product definition handed to them by a product manager sitting somewhere else in the marketing department, strategy department or wherever.

    To me, this completely defeats the purpose:
    1) the guy with the actual product vision is often aloof and sits away from the team, and
    2) the full benefits of agile come when the whole product team work and think iteratively. Agile is half-implemented when the product team continues to think in terms of SR/big bang/feature releases.

    The PO of the scrum team should be both the voice of the product and an agile thinker.

  6. 1. Thing is that product managers/product owner need the training to be a good PO. Or they have to understand the WHY.
    2. Stop being lazy and giving responsibility to the team (especially to the Scrum Master, so he/she becomes the proxy)
    3. Start being open to Scrum and try to understand it and do not ask endless questions which does not make sense.

    This are my experience after 1 year scrum practice.

    A good PO:
    1.) Knows the product
    2.) Decides quickly
    3.) Has a good relation to the team

    Greeting from Vietnam!

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  23. I see your concern, Ken. The question though is how one person can both, travel/talk to customers and also be available to the team? I have seen In a few companies now where the combo of the Product Manager and Proxy Product Onwer actually works very well, but they have to be super allingned. In some cases it is actually not a bad split because you have strong PMs who prefer strategy and some that prefer working close with the team. If Product Manager works closely with PO/BA to identify high level business goals but then empowers them to take it from there and create the backlog, it works. PO/BA is there every day with the team but PM has the flexibility to travel more to see customers but still comes to Sprint Demos.

    • The goal of the PO is to maximize the benefit from the development activity. To do so, they need to infuse the team(s) with their ideas, their goals, their context. They can do this by having teams that are aware of the business and the marketplace. It turns out that team members aren’t sterile; they are part of the business and consumers in the marketplace also. The PO can do great good by having long, rambling discussions with the teams about the PO’s intentions and goals.
      And, if all else fails, the PO can reset at the Sprint Review.

  24. Ken,

    Part of the problem is the role of the “Product Owner” as defined. When I coach teams, I define the “Product Owner” as a someone who owns a small business, has a small bit of money, wants to do something with the money/team he has in order to survive. That drives the backlog, stories and its priorities. And coach them to write stories that will bring home more money when the release goes out in every Sprint (something akin to “Lean Startup”). The ambiguity of this role definition is what is potentially causing this problem, which we now have to therefore solve.

    — Sri

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  26. Dear Ken,

    Above all sounds really great and… challenging.

    The following comes to mind though:
    A Product Owner (by Proxy) should always focus on the value that the features and stories will bring. In multiple companies we have now experienced that we are building new software solutions which replace existing solutions. From user perspective the value comes when they have most of their functionalities (back) in one place.
    So releasing different features and stories may not always bring the direct value from the end user perspective.

    What is your experience in these cases, how to keep moving forward, deliver sprints and still steer on value?



  27. Other types of value that change the order of the Product Backlog are:
    1. Removing technical debt so that the software can be more readily changed and supports agility.
    2. Critical infrastructure or architecture items (always have one function included to prove that these invisible items work)
    3. Removal of risk


  28. In the finance industry (and in other industries probably as well), many systems are serving internal customers from multiple departments (e.g. sales, risk controlling, reporting, etc.). Decisions regarding the functionality of the systems are typically made by dept. managers. Appointing one of the dept. managers as PO is usually not feasible, because she or he wouldn’t have the capacity to interact with the scrum team. Additionally, there could be conflicts between maximizing the value for her/his department and maximizing value for the whole organization. In many organization, a BA from the IT department is chosen as a product owner to moderate between the stakeholders. What would be your advice for selecting an efficient and effective PO in this environment?

    • Maximizing the value of work done by the developers on shared systems is a tough problem. Leaving it to the BA means everyone gets to blame him/her. At Fidelity, we gathered representatives from all the interested departments and went through a prioritizing exercise, at least once a month. People who don’t show don’t get a say.

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  30. Perhaps you simply can’t deliver a PO course out of the context of a product team, developing a specific product and its wider value stream. I am increasingly of the impression that courses gathering birds of a feather (i.e. POs in one place, Scrum Masters in another) are good for exchanging experiences and information and are in effect meetups with a facilitator with superior knowledge and experience steering the conversation. However, for enlightenment to happen and for knowledge to descend from the mind to the fingertips, your really need on-the-job coaching in which the whole team can learn to apply agile. When the facilitator can shape shift between being a fly on the wall, an adviser and a hands-on person, with the experience and empathy of keeping his/her own ego out of the process of helping the team build itself along with their product.

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  37. I disagree. I think that there are two particularly good stances of Proxy PO: first is Junior PO and second is PO Assistant. The world is not made only of superstars and we simply need less experienced people as well.

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