The advantage of being a trainer and a consultant at the same time is that you get the chance to meet a lot of Product Owners. I hear the stories of Product Owners struggling with their daily challenges. Sometimes these stories are beautiful & inspiring, but mostly they look like an episode of ‘House of Cards’ (meaning it’s ugly and full of politics and tough decision making).
Looking at all these stories you can see an evolutionary pattern appear, describing how a Product Owner grows in his role.
The evolutionary pattern contains 5 levels of Product Owners that I encountered. These levels can be described by a graph that we use in the Professional Product Owner training:
Each of the PO-versions in the graph is an upgrade of its predecessor:
As a first attempt of implementing the Product Owner role, organizations often start with someone who has strong analytic skills. This is often a member of the Development Team that was used to writing requirement specs or someone who used to be the ‘Business Analyst’. Since this person typically comes from the IT department, it is an easy to take first step towards implementing Scrum and we can get started with the creation of a Product Backlog.
However, a Scribe has limited benefits, since he often needs others (marketing, sales, product/project managers, steering committees, etc) to answer difficult questions. This delegated decision making often leads to a disruption of the flow, bottlenecks, large piles of stocked work and a slow generation of business value.
In order to solve the communication problems of a Scribe, organizations update the Product Owner role with a senior analyst that has strong communication skills. This person is like an account manager that is mostly still coming from the IT department. The focus of a Proxy shifts from creating Product Backlog items towards creating Product Increments.
The expected benefits of a Proxy are slightly better, since he is more connected to the business than the Scribe. Although the delays, waiting time and hick-ups will decrease, many of those remain.
The Business Representative
A problem that is often heard with the Proxy (and also the Scribe) is that the business (often marketing & sales) is disconnected from the IT department. Once organizations understand that they need to break down the inter-departmental barriers, they send in someone from marketing/sales/product management to fill in the Product Owner role. This upgrade to Business Representative is the next step in the evolution. From this moment on the Scrum team consists of people from all parts of the organization, and not only from the IT department.
The expected benefits increase again, since there is a broader collaboration. Now there is direct availability of functional knowledge & stakeholder expectations. Yet, the Business Representative still has limited autonomy, since marketing\sales\product management department are still the real authorities.
Once a Business Representative has felt the pain of continuously asking the business departments to make decisions, he will probably fight to get some mandate. Once the business departments dare to give control to and trust the Business Representative, the next step in the evolution is made and the Business Representative is upgraded to a Sponsor.
It works better if the person is not only from business, but also has the trust and the mandate to take decisions (on the spot). A mandate is a signal that the role is taken more seriously. The Sponsor is often allowed to spend more time as a Product Owner, leading to less hick-ups, context\task switching & largely improved flow. The Development Team can focus more, and get things done.
The issues of a Sponsor mostly come down to a need for lobbying for budget. A sponsor still needs to negotiate to free up money from the different business departments. Maybe he can already decide on how to spend the money for his own department, but there are still other departments that need to be convinced.
The last step in the evolution of the Product Owner is to make him fully responsible for functionality and budgets. This makes him a real Entrepreneur, whose job is to create as much Business Value for his customers as possible. He’s like a mini-CEO, a real owner over the product.
The Entrepreneur is responsible for all aspects, like marketing, competition, users, legal & finance within the scope of his product. His professional life is dedicated to the well-being of the product.
Unfortunately, these kind of Product Owners are still a rare species, since organizations are often not ready to delegate this kind of control.
Some good books on the role of the Professional Product Owner and Professional Scrum:
12 Comments so far
JamesPosted on7:02 am - Feb 23, 2018
As a developer wanting to transition into product owner role, this is depressing. Very good article but now I wonder if I should even try.
Ron EringaPosted on3:59 pm - Feb 26, 2018
Don’t get demoralized by how the PO grows in his role. See it as a chance to get involved with the business from the start. Once you start working with them and show them that you are actually doing this to create real value for them and customers, you can pave your path into a nice growth curve.
JamesPosted on7:10 pm - Mar 2, 2018
Good point. Thank you for pointing that out. Great article by the way!
Riadh MadhounPosted on2:04 pm - Apr 3, 2018
Thanks for this article showing the different step of PO maturity levels.
The transition between the Proxy and The Business Representative seems to show a movement from IT department to Business.
Maybe I don’t see the full picture but this kind of movement makes the PO to change (from one person to another) since IT and Business remains separated.
Or maybe this makes the agile team actually cross functional at the level of the PO “Business Representative”.
What do you think ?
KrisPosted on3:38 pm - Jun 28, 2018
Hello Ron, let me start by saying I like your blog a lot. Have you ever come across a company that wanted to go through an agile transformation and to get there organised as a team of teams with their own PO, SM and Developers? If so, I would be very much interested to hear of their experience since it looks like something we might want to try in our own company.
Ron EringaPosted on6:01 pm - Aug 13, 2018
Sorry for the late response….I missed your message somehow….
I have seen a number of organisations who gathered as a team to handle their transformation. Only a very few understand that middle management should be actively involved in such a change. Most of them just continue to work as they are used to and hire external people to get this job done. Obviously the impact of such an approach is low. It is mostly the smaller companies who get this to work, because the politics and required change is easier to manifest.
IsmainePosted on3:45 pm - Jul 26, 2019
outstanding blog. as a certified scrum master, your blog is refreshing and I am learning a lot. I work for a company that decided to change the IT department’s culture and go full agile/ safe. The IT department has two smaller departments: IT infrastructure, system, security and systems, and IT development. The decision was made to transform the former as the latter was already going through the agile transition. When I read your article about the PO, it seems that it is going to be not possible for us to have a PO in my department.(IT infrastructure, system, security and systems) Using Agile for infrastructure teams is already challenging but based on my understanding of your article, my department will never have a PO above the Proxy pattern. There will be a mix of features but for our IT teams, never a PO will be anything above the proxy. What are your thoughts?
Ron EringaPosted on4:56 pm - Jul 31, 2019
Let me ask you a challenging question back…when you’re already concluding it’s not going to move forward, who else will be trying to do so?
So as I see it you have 3 choices (in the order of my personal preference):
1. Help people to understand the benefits of anything above the proxy and keep trying
2. Abandon ship
3. Give up and deal with the consequences of that decision
It’s all a matter of energy….you put some energy in it and once it moves a step forward you will have to opportunity to get some energy back.
If the energy is draining to much, you always have a choice for option 2.
To me personally number 3 was never a real option. It would be unfair for both me and my employer\client to loose the energy and not move forward.
Also, keep watching my LinkedIn account, somewhere this year I will release some content that deals with organization culture design. Perhaps this can give you some insight on why things aren’t changing as you would like….
KelliePosted on4:23 am - Oct 31, 2019
Great article thank you – as a new Product Owner it’s very helpful to get a feel for where both myself and the organisation are at the moment.
However, I noticed that your article and the avatars you are using are all male. As a woman working in this environment, it would be great to be able to see more representation of women in your great blogs.
Ron EringaPosted on9:31 pm - Nov 16, 2020
You are completely right, so that is something I’m already doing in my current blogs.
Since time is limited and there’s so much more stuff to do, I will not go back and rewrite all the stuff I already published 😉
BhuvanPosted on5:53 am - Jan 29, 2021
Very good article.
I`m currently in the proxy level of evolution. I felt the effort to move from one level to next is not linear, in fact, I felt it is exponential.
If you also agree, may be chart (graph) can reflect that.
Ron EringaPosted on11:24 am - Feb 1, 2021
You are 100% right.
In fact, this picture originates from this blog by Gunther Verheyen. Since he has come to the same conclusion, I updated the picture as well.