Our production team recently made the switch from waterfall to agile. While there were some initial hurdles, it has proved to be a good move. But one of the biggest challenges we have using scrum in an agency environment is deciding who should be the product owner.
There are two camps: Client as Product Owner and Account Manager as Product Owner.
Scrum Product Owners are concerned with the business goals of a product. They set the product vision, outline the product goals, and make decisions about the product priorities. The client is the authority on what is valued by the business and by putting the client in the role of the Product Owner, it helps ensure that the requirements are communicated directly to the team. It keeps the client regularly apprised of project status, clearly demonstrates the impact a “quick change” in requirements can have on the progress of a project, and gives them the power to decide whether that change is implemented.
Account Manager Camp
Being a good Product Owner is a demanding role. Product Owners write user stories and acceptance tests, prioritize user stories by business value, decide which user stories are developed next, and must be available to provide rapid feedback. It is rare to find a client who has the time and experience to effectively steer a project and take responsibility for the business value that is delivered. Our clients hire us to do that work for them, so Account Managers should learn as much as they can about the client’s business, and then take on the role of Product Owner.
Each approach has its pros and cons. Having the client as Product Owner is great when they have the time and the inclination to participate, but many just don’t. Having an Account Manager become familiar enough with a business to effectively represent the interests of a business works well when there is a budget for strategy and discovery, but that can get expensive for the client.
In an effort to blend the best of both camps, we've implemented a proxy model with the account manager and client working together as the Product Owner. The account manager conducts an abbreviated strategy with the client through a series of short co-development sessions. They work together to define user roles, write user stories, and prioritize them for the team. The client is very involved in the backlog grooming and sprint planning, but then empowers the account manager to make important decisions during the sprint.
Our Sprint Review meetings consist of work done on multiple projects, so having the client sit in on the entire meeting is not an option. Our solution is to involve the account manager as Product Owner in the Sprint Review and then schedule a separate meeting for client presentations.
This approach is working for us now but we are always open to learning more about how other agencies are solving this problem. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!