The term proxy product owner is common in many agile environments, but what is it, why does it exist and is it useful?
What is it?
Firstly, let’s just remind ourselves of what a product owner is.
Fundamentally, the role of a product owner exists to help represent the needs of both the business stakeholders and the users within a complex environment. They broker the needs of those two sets of people condensing their requests for features and enhancements into a single prioritised list of tasks for the development team to turn in to working product.
A proxy product owner is someone who is representing the role of the product owner without actually being that person themselves.
Confused? You may well be. And that can be the exact problem with this approach, so let’s unpack it a bit.
Why does it exist?
The role proxy product owner usually exists because of corporate job title insanity.
Someone who likes the idea of being in charge of decision making, perceiving it gives them some authority, usually establishes it. That person almost certainly thinks that the job of product owner is to be a manager of people who work in tech product, not own the content and ordering of the product backlog, as is the original purpose.
Ultimately, some bad behaviours can come of this role – the worst of which is a power play by the person the proxy is operating for.
Is it useful?
Not usually. It’s usually seen as a key indicator of tech product dysfunction in an organisation that is ‘agile in name only’.
A typical dysfunction is that the product owner will take all the credit when things go well and the proxy will take all the grief when it doesn’t. This can lead to a horrible dynamic for the development team to work with.
The Lean, agile and scaling frameworks are incredibly well thought through, by people with a lot of experience. As soon as new job roles spring up, it’s either a stroke of genius or a botch, usually the latter. The role of a product owner exists to keep decision making about the content and ordering of the backlog simple. Turning a product owner in to a proxy undermines that, making the role a powerless admin role that few professionals would aspire to.
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