The Customer is Not Even Close to Us

Not a long time ago, a colleague told me that our project was much better than his, because according to him, our customer was close to us. This sentence got me thinking and I’m pretty sure the customer is not close to us at all. The customer is close when you, as a team member, can directly interact with her. I remember the times when we were showing our progress to a customer who came to our office and paid after she liked what she had seen. What we have now is a virtual customer often referenced by a company name and a Product Owner who is supposed to represent that customer, but this setup doesn’t bring the customer close us.

I was taught that the Product Owner is similar to a customer, but it turned out that he is not even close. In reality, he is a filter between the teams and the real customer: when a user story is written by him, it is not what the customer wants, it is what the customer may want with the functionality that he as the Product Owner wants. I talked to several Product Owners during the last couple of years and most of them had only a vague idea about what the customer really wanted. They pushed the teams instead to implement what they wanted, because they were pretty certain - without exception - that it was the same as what the customer wanted. In 8 out of 10 cases they were wrong unfortunately.

By design, the Agile methodologies would like to move the customer closer to the teams in order to reduce the costs (waste) caused by misunderstandings between her and the teams. As far as I know, eXtreme Programming is the only one which actually brings the customer on-site, the rest of the methodologies are using filters such as the Product Owner, the Product Manager, or the Business Analyst. I’m pretty sure that a filter is the last thing we need.

What we need is somebody who can help the teams understand what the customer wants, and facilitate the conversation between them. It is an important role, but the power of making decisions is not included, because the business related decisions must be made by the customer and the technology related decisions by the developer teams. Most of the Product Owners in an enterprise environment had a role with the power of making decisions before, and it is very hard for them to give up this role for a temporary thing like Agile. So, they keep making decisions, both business and technology-wise and they don’t really help the teams get closer to the customer. This attitude brings back the gap between the teams and the customer.

If you have a Product Owner who makes decisions, I’m afraid that you aren’t doing Agile. It is still the old way of doing business with different role names and therefore the distance between the customer and you hasn’t changed. It looks shorter, but actually it isn’t - like in our case.

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