How to deal with The Proxy Product Owner?

In the following article, I am going to identify a Product Owner not only as Scrum Role but as a position existing across many organizations. I am also going to use multiple mental shortcuts and a lot of subjective opinions.

It is ubiquitous for many companies to have CEO, COO and lots of other 3-letters positions. More and more companies also tend to always hire Product Owner, because he will organize work in the IT department, right? Not necessary. That often leads to a dysfunction in a very large amount of organizations and it is named Proxy Product Owner. Who is he?

Who is the Product Owner?

Let’s start with the Scrum. In The Scrum Guide, we read that “the Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product resulting from work of the Development Team”. Personally, I think that an MVP of a Scrum Product Owner can be defined in two statements.

The Product Owner is the sole person.
Only Product Owner defines priorities for the Development Team.

There are multiple more guidelines on what he/she should do and how it should be done. I didn’t mention working on the Backlog or optimizing value on purpose. The reason is simple – I value them but I value two underlined things more. Not very clean Backlog or not optimized work can cost you wasted time and money. Even bigger problems might appear when there is more than one person defining priorities for the Development Team. Sooner or later there will be a conflict. if you are still wondering about having more than one Product Owner, please read https://www.excella.com/insights/dear-agile-can-we-have-multiple-product-owners

Second thing is that only Product Owner defines priorities for a team. It is not a common situation but imagines that COO walks into developers room and tell them to change focus and immediately start work on feature A. Same time Product Owner can demand that Developers are focused on feature B (because it is what he prioritized). There will be a lot of a confusion across the team regarding priorities. This situation ideally should be changed to COO talking with PO and explaining (or order if he/she is inpatient) what to do. Don’t be afraid of “not flat” structure or chain of command. It is the simplest and easiest way to avoid confusion and its all ok until it’s not often.

So who is the Proxy Product Owner?

If you ask me it is the “Product Owner” who far to often have visits from COO with information about what should be done next and what should be abandoned. It is very simple that real PO here is COO guy. It is very well described pattern, and my favorite sources about it are 
Alex Ballarin Latre blogpost Scrum and Barry Overeem.

What to do when you identify Proxy in your organization.

Proxy Product Owner basically is doing one of two roles. He is a Scrum Master who is doing a bad job or he is “forward manager”. Either way, such a situation needs to be straightened. What are the possible solutions, when you are in boots of a COO?

Don’t change anything.

Simplest yet still the effective solution is just to accept Proxy PO existence with all pros and cons of it.

Let Proxy became real PO.

This is way harder since it requires putting a lot of trust into PO. You need to believe that he is the best man for his job and you need to believe that he is capable of handling all those things by himself.

Fire Proxy and work with the team yourself.

For most of the COO’s, this is an unacceptable solution because they are way to important and way to busy to work directly with the development team themselves. But if you consider yourself to know product best and to know what are your customers’ needs and you can explain that to any Proxy… then you probably still are the Product Owner. What worse, you are apparently the PO who is not doing his job pretty well.

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