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How should a product owner in scrum deal with very detailed questions from the team regarding the features they are implementing that he cannot instantly answer himself? When it would clearly be the faster solution for the developer to directly talk to the customer himself?

I wonder if direct communication between the team and the customer undermines the role of the product owner. I feel like the PO should exclusively represent the customer and therefore answer all questions regarding the requirements - even if that takes longer. Bypassing him seems to weaken him and eventually make him superfluous...

Is there a best practice in scrum?

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    I have to agree with you that the owner should be the sole point of contact between development and customer. I disagree that making the product owner unnecessary is the reason, or that it's faster to bypass the role. I'll put it this way: on a project with 10 developers you do not want 10 people constantly talking to the customer and negotiating features. First, it annoys the customer, second it takes time away from actually developing. If you get blocked on all tasks because you need more information then you need to fix the requirements capture phase and not try to fix ownership. – Patrick Hughes Oct 25 '15 at 18:35
  • "When it would clearly be the faster solution ..." Just want to point out the obvious: faster isn't necessarily better. – Eric King Oct 26 '15 at 16:08
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It is always a good idea (especially in so-called Agile projects) not to stick to some cargo cult or text book telling you "who should (not) talk to whom", but switch on your brain and do whatever works best in a project.

Though the communication between PO and the customer should be the standard (because of the reasons scetched by @PatrickHughes in his comment), you may face a situation where a complex business requirement has to be clarified, and the direct communication between a dev and a business expert will speed up things a lot. In such a situation, one should avoid playing "chinese whisper" with the PO in the middle, and let the dev and the business expert directly talk to each other - for this restricted context.

However, the PO should never be bypassed. Ideally, he takes part in that conversation, probably as a moderator. He can verify the customer does not bring up completly new requirements on the table during the talk, or requirements contrary to what was agreed upon before.

This depends also on the people involved, and the situation. The PO might have enough trust in the specific dev and the customer's expert, to let the two talk alone about a specific topic, and let him or her report what was said afterwards. In another situation, with other people involved, he might prefer to take a more active part. To get this decisions right is the core of good project management.

  • "The whole idea of Agile development is - not to stick to some cargo cult or text book, but switch on your brain and do whatever works best in a project.": True, but this idea is not specific to agile. – Giorgio Oct 26 '15 at 18:51
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    +1 if doing scrum in an agile way, then a business expert would probably be part of the team and available anyway... – Marjan Venema Oct 26 '15 at 19:02
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    Right. The PO should never be a gate keeper. Instead, the PO is the one ultimately responsible for the product. – Steven Burnap Oct 26 '15 at 21:41
  • @StevenBurnap that would mean that the PO needs to be an expert in the field right from the beginning... in my experience, that is not always the case. – tizenegy Oct 27 '15 at 14:32
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    @Giorgio: absolutely, IMHO "Agile development" is just a buzzword which incorporates some good habits which are much older than the term, and not restricted to itself. – Doc Brown Oct 27 '15 at 14:55
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To the developers, the product owner IS the customer. Ideally (and I know that's not always possible) the product owner should be a direct representative of the customer, a domain expert and future user of the system.
That's the best way to ensure you have direct and correct information available and the shortest lines possible into their processes.

Ideal example is probably the team I'm working with now. Product owner is a senior end user and domain expert with full authority to authorise design decisions on the spot (and the willingness and ability to actually do so). He's an integral part of the team and directly assists the analyst and designer in writing the user stories, as well as programmers and testers in building the product by providing near instant feedback on implementation questions and test scenarios.
Lines can't really be shorter than having your future user sitting next to you while coding :)

  • "Lines can't really be shorter than having your future user sitting next to you while coding :)": Whether this is always good is questionable. – Giorgio Oct 26 '15 at 18:48
  • @Giorgio of course, depends on the people involved. But it's what SCRUM (and Agile practices in general) promotes, short lines, rapid decision making. In our case it works because the customer is really enthousiastic and wants the product to succeed, but they're also realistic enough to realise that not everything is possible (certainly not within the budgetary and technical limits we have to work with). – jwenting Oct 27 '15 at 5:00
  • Sure, and I think it also depends on the kind of project. Some projects require feedback more often than others. Also, in some projects / products you want to keep some information for yourself. But yes, for certain projects having the customer sitting with you in the same office and following the development is probably the best setting possible. – Giorgio Oct 27 '15 at 6:30
  • @Giorgio: "Product owner is a senior end user and domain expert with full authority to authorise design decisions on the spot" That sounds like your PO can answer just about every question the developers might have. I was reffering to a different situation: A PO who still is not yet at the same level of expertise as the customers themselves and therefore needs to get back to them on a regular basis in order to answer more difficult questions. – tizenegy Oct 27 '15 at 8:16
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You have to remember that the customer of the company who employs you as a developer has different goals to the company who employs you.

The product owner has to represent the goals of your company rather the goals of the customer. So if the devs go straight to the customer they can undermine thier own company.

  • the goal for all should be to deliver the best possible product under budget and on target. It's only how to do that that's a potential source of discussion. – jwenting Oct 27 '15 at 5:01
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    lets not be naive though. The company might prefer to get the min contracted spec done and move onto a more profitable project for example. Or more likely in my experience the customer will want to add features and expand the scope while keeping the price the same – Ewan Oct 27 '15 at 9:54

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