Agile’s Customer Problem

Agile methods like Scrum and XP both rely on a close and collaborative relationship and continual interaction with the customer – the people who are paying for the software and who are going to use the system. Rather than writing and reviewing detailed specifications and working through sign-offs and committees, the team works with someone who represents the interests of the customer to define business features and to decide what work needs to be done and when. One of the key problems in adopting these approaches is finding the right person to play the important role of the Customer (XP) or Product Owner (Scrum). I’ll use both terms interchangeably.

The team reviews their work with the Customer, the Customer answers any questions that they have and sets the team’s direction and priorities and makes sure that the team is focused on what is important to the business, owns and manages the requirements backlog, writes acceptance tests and decides when the software really is done.

A team’s success depends a lot on how good the Customer or Product Owner is, their knowledge and experience, their commitment to the project, how they make decisions and how good these decisions are. Mike Cohn in his book Succeeding with Agile explains that Product Owners have to be:

  • committed to the team and available to answer questions, get the information that the team needs when the team needs it;
  • an expert in the business: not only do they have to understand the domain, but they also need to understand what’s important strategically to the business and what’s important to the user community;
  • a good communicator within the team and outside of the team;
  • a good negotiator so that they can balance the needs of the team and the needs of different stakeholders;
  • empowered – they must be able to make decisions on behalf of the customer – and they need to be willing to make tradeoffs and tough decisions when they have to.

An effective Product Owner also needs to be detail-oriented so that they can understand and resolve fine details of functionality and write functional acceptance tests. They should understand the basics of software development, at least the boundaries of what is and is not possible, what is hard to do and what isn’t and why so that they can appreciate technical dependencies and technical risks. They need to at least understand the rules of Scrum or XP – what’s expected of them, and how to play the game.

And they should understand the basics of project management and risk management. Because in the end, the Product Owner is the person who decides what gets done and what doesn’t.

The Product Owner is a product manager, project manager and business analyst all rolled into one.

Oh, and… they also need to be “collaborative by choice”, “agile in all things”, and…” fun and reasonable”.

Being in Two places at Once

The Product Owner has to work closely with the team, in touch with what the team is working on, to make sure that they can keep moving forward. But the Product Owner also has to stay involved in the business to understand what is going on and what is important. They have to be both inward-facing (working with the team, planning, holding reviews, attending meetings, prioritizing, helping to manage the backlog, defining requirements, answering questions and clarifying information) and outward-facing (working with the project’s sponsors and with the users of the system, making sure that the business understands what is happening in the project, making sure that they understand business priorities and competitive positioning and business trends and when any of this changes and how this could affect the project). They have to be in two places at once, which is physically impossible if the development team and the business aren’t co-located.

The Product Owner and Politics

There are political risks in the team’s relationship with the Product Owner, and in the Product Owner’s position and influence within their own organization. The Product Owner has to play politics with the team and inside the business, trying to promote the interests of the team and the project, reconciling conflicts between different stakeholders, trying to get and keep stakeholders onside, building coalitions. Their success, and the project’s success, depends on their ability to negotiate these issues.

Scrum assumes that the Product Owner is not only committed and talented and in touch with the business’s strategic priorities and with the concerns and needs of front line workers; but it also assumes that the Product Owner will always put the interests of the business ahead of their own interests. But a good Product Owner is usually an ambitious Product Owner – they are interested in the project as an opportunity to advance their career. Projects effect change, and with every change there are winners and losers. There is the real risk that the Product Owner’s success may put them in conflict with other important stakeholders in the business – by focusing on making their Product Owner happy, the team may be making enemies somewhere else in the organization without knowing it.

A Customer, or Many Customers?

Not only does the Product Owner decide what is important and what is going to get done, they are responsible for the project’s budget, and they are accountable for the project’s success. According to Ken Schwaber’s Agile Software Development with Scrum (the original definition of Scrum) the Product Owner is “the person who is officially responsible for the project”, “the one throat to choke” if the project fails or goes off the rails.

Expecting one person to take on all of this responsibility and this much work is unrealistic. It’s too much responsibility, too much risk, and too much work. For many Product Owners, it’s more than a full-time job – a direct contradiction to Agile values that put people first and emphasize realistic working hours and sustainable pace for the team.

This has been a problem since the beginning of Agile: a few months after the launch of the initial phase of C3 (the first XP project), the Customer representative quit due to burnout and stress, and could not be replaced, and the project was eventually cancelled.

Scrum still demands that the Product Owner role must be played by one person.

This doesn’t make sense, given that another fundamental underlying Agile principle is that people working together collaboratively make better decisions than one person working alone (“the Wisdom of Crowds”). If true, then why are the critical decisions about prioritization and direction and vision for the project made by one person?

The people behind XP eventually recognized that the simple idea of a Customer demanded too much from one person, that the workload and responsibility need to be shared by a Customer team. A Customer team means that you get the advantage of multiple perspectives, people with different specialties and experiences, and you have more help with answering questions and making decisions. It’s more sustainable and practical.

But this comes with its own set of problems:

  • The development team has to reconcile differences in abilities, differences in understanding, different priorities, biases and political conflicts and personal conflicts within the Customer team.
  • More time has to be spent explicitly keeping the Customer team itself in synch. There are more chances of mistakes and misunderstandings and dropped balls.
  • Somebody still has to be in charge, make the important decisions – what Mike Cohn calls “the-buck-stops-here” person. The development team has to know that Customer decisions will not be over-ridden within the Customer team so that they can commit to getting work done.

The Customer in Maintenance

Maintenance and enhancement, where most of us will spend a lot of our careers, shows other problems with the Product Owner idea. First, it’s hard enough to get someone with the talent and drive and selflessness to represent the customer on a high-profile, strategic development project. It’s much harder to get anything close to this same level of commitment and talent for smaller projects, or for ongoing maintenance work. People with this knowledge and ability are likely to be running or supporting some important part of the business, not answering questions and helping to prioritize issues for your maintenance team.

And if you are lucky enough to find someone good, it’s hard to keep them – unlike a project, maintenance work doesn’t have a clear end date, so the team will need to get used to working with different Customers at different times, with different working styles, different agendas and different strengths.

The Product Owner is supposed to act as the single voice for the customer. But for a production system you are more likely to have too many voices, too many different people with different priorities and demands, all working for different parts of the business, all talking to different people on your team, trying to get what they need or want done. Or for some old legacy systems you may run into the opposite problem – nobody wants to take ownership of the system or its data, nobody knows enough or wants to be responsible for making business decisions.

Be your own Customer

All of these challenges don’t mean that you can’t work with the Product Owner model – obviously lots of teams are following Scrum and XP in one way or another. But you need to recognize the limitations and risks of this approach, and be prepared to fill in.

For example, many development and maintenance teams who work in a different location and especially a different timezone from the business fall back on a Customer Proxy: a business analyst or somebody else on the team who can help fill part of the Customer role, and work with people in the business to help answer questions and confirm requirements and priorities. It’s not as efficient as working directly with the business, but sometimes there isn’t a choice.

Even strong Customers need help at times. Many ScrumMasters and Product Owners find ways to split up the responsibilities more equitably and help each other out.

The Scrum Master or team lead or senior developers or senior testers, whoever is playing a technical leadership role on the team may have to step in and help fill in when the Customer isn’t available, when they are over-worked and can’t keep up, when they don’t understand, when they aren’t qualified to make a decision, or when they don’t care. To reconcile technical and business requirements and the needs of different stakeholders, and make technical and business trade-offs and long-term and short-term trade-offs. To communicate with business stakeholders. To follow-up on outstanding issues and unanswered questions and try to get answers from someone in the business. To write the acceptance tests for the customer – a common problem on Agile teams is that nobody on the business side is willing to help write acceptance tests, but they are willing to jump on the team when something is done wrong.

Be prepared to make more mistakes working this way – you will have to work with imperfect and incomplete information, sometimes you’ll have to make a best guess and go with it, and you will get requirements and priorities wrong. Test everything that you can, and get the product out to the business as quickly and as often as you can, and be prepared for negative feedback. You may not be able to build as close a relationship with the business as you could with a strong and committed Customer.

It’s a compromise, but it’s a necessary compromise that many teams have no choice but to make. As Mike Cohn points out in The Fallacy of One Throat to Choke, in the end it’s the team that fails, not just the Customer.

Reference: Agile’s Customer Problem from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.
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Alexia Marthoon
Alexia Marthoon
10 years ago

wondering how come theres no mention about Agile Scrum Certification is not in the list.

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