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The role of the product owner as special challenges

In our agile teams, the product owner role is on the client side. The product owner is part of the team, but not an employee at sum.cumo.

In our series of articles, we would like to introduce you to agile working at sum.cumo and show you why we can no longer imagine our company without these methods. You can also read more about when an agile way of working makes sense and which different methods shape our way of thinking and working in the article "Keep agile alive".

In this article, we would like to focus especially on the opportunities of modern collaboration through customer-facing product owners and get recurring questions on this topic straight out of the way:

  • Can agile teams not lose security in the process?
  • Doesn't the decision create too much pressure on the development teams?
  • Doesn't this cross a line in the Agile Manifesto*?
  • Doesn't this leave us with dissatisfaction?

We actually just started with the external product owner staffing without having known an example of this form. To this day, we still don't know of any comparable approach from other companies, but we don't want to rule it out at all. That's why we want to use our current experience to draw an initial conclusion for all our partners, so that we can be pioneers for this model and spread the benefits.

The journey is the destination

In an agile project, the roles of product owner and scrum master share project management. The product owner maintains a strategic view of the project, while the scrum master provides operational support to the team. So you can imagine the two of them like a driver and passenger before the turn of the millennium, who went to a place with a car map in the hands of the passenger. The co-driver here would be the Product Owner. The role of Scrum Master is often also lived by our Project Manager:s, who strongly represent both applicable requirements and the operational team as sparring partners.

In terms of our teams, Product Owners create and prioritize the requirements for the project, give everyone a roadmap, and our developers:ins and designers:ins drive off with it. At the same time, they are also the people who have to sign off on the work that has been done and feel that it is finished.

So the product owner is like a customer to the team and vicariously the team to the customer. So when we fill the role with customer employees, we have embedded direct communication into the agile team and eliminated all friction in advance. For example, questions to the product are answered immediately and the current business planning of our customers is always transparent to all contributors. Comparable to a continuous presentation of the product vision, which should be a matter of course in every agile team. However, it is equally true here that the role of the product owner is a regular part of the team and there is no delegation to the respective project team.

Get out of the comfort zone

We know that our agile teams are thus leaving a comfort zone that is offered to employees in many other companies. The distance to the customer side. However, the development teams at sum.cumo enjoy a rare freedom: they have a mandatory say in project and release plans. The peculiarity that the IT architecture of our customer solutions is at home at sum.cumo requires technical advice from the development team during prioritization. Only together can an effective ranking of the most important requirements be determined and established. Accordingly, distance from the customer is undesirable at sum.cumo and, moreover, does not lead to the desired results.

Agile frameworks or coaching assignments are carried out by us exclusively on the basis of values and not according to guidelines. For example, technical consulting makes our project planning more intensive than it is known from the Scrum Guide. The reward for the longer prioritization and planning phase is a comparably short communication loop to our customers. To maintain this effect, our projects like to consult Agile Coaching and its recommended actions.

Agile work with external product owners

If you are also planning to take the step towards an agile way of working with customer product owners, we have compiled a checklist with initial recommendations for action:

  • The decisive factor is the current cooperation relationship of the customer relationship. As long as the agile guiding principles are secured, agile frameworks can be adapted based on values.
  • Transparent expectations in the project teams. To give everyone involved security and freedom, these should become commitments.
  • Risk assessments should be repeated in project teams and mitigation measures should be included in project requirements.
  • Support role sharpening. Project strategy belongs to the product owner role, but technical guidance and operational execution to the rest of the team. The customer relationship should be seen as a cooperative effort and should also be contractually regulated accordingly. This creates the necessary eye level, security and mutual understanding for everyone.
  • Dynamic Agile Coaching on both sides. It can be a great help in both operational and strategic issues. Agile Coaching is meaningful and effective in every project and team phase.

Advantages of this special collaboration:

  • little to no friction losses
  • transparent business planning of your customers
  • constant insight into the product vision
  • freedom to make decisions
  • value-based frameworks
  • true customer cooperation
  • equal sense of responsibility

For these reasons, we are in favor of this step and can answer the questions described at the beginning with a clear "no". For us, one thing is certain: that the product owner role on the customer side is a special challenge, which we will continue to promote and maintain in the future.