- Extreme Programming (XP) has a practice called On-Site Customer where one or more people work closely with your team to provide information and to make decisions in a timely manner.
- Scrum has the role of Product Owner who is the one single person that the development team goes to for decisions about requirements.
- Agile Modeling (AM) has the practice of Active Stakeholder Participation which extends On-Site Customer to get the stakeholder(s) actively involved with the modeling effort through the use of inclusive modeling tools and techniques.
These are great strategies for small, co-located teams doing straightforward development, but they quickly fall apart at scale. This occurs for several reasons:
- Stakeholders are a diverse group. Your stakeholders include end users, business management, project funders, enterprise architects, operations staff, support staff, other system development teams, and many others. Different people have different, and often contradictory, requirements and they certainly have different priorities. It's questionable whether a single person, or a handful of persons, can adequately represent this diverse group.
- One person becomes a bottleneck. Even with a small co-located team this is a problem, let alone one that is geographically distributed or one that is very large. There's no way that a single person can be available 24/7 in a responsive manner to support distributed teams.
- It's a difficult role. The Product Owner/Customer (POC) is responsible for representing the business to the development team. They're making important decisions on a regular basis, decisions which they'll be held accountable for.
- One person becomes a serious project risk. Not only is it questionable whether a single person can fairly represent all stakeholders, even if they could what happens if you lose that person? They effectively become a single point of failure for your team.
To scale this role, consider the following strategies:
- Recognize the true scope of the POC role. Not only are they stakeholder proxies they also are a development team representative to the stakeholder community as a whole. As stakeholder proxies they'll make decisions and prioritize the work, they'll run requirements elicitation sessions, they'll negotiate priorities, and they'll put the development team in contact with stakeholders who have expertise in specific aspects of the domain. As team representatives they'll often demo the current version of the system to other stakeholders, communicate the status of the project to people, and respond to various requests for information from the stakeholders.
- Have multiple people in it. A single POC works well for small, co-located teams developing simple software. At scale you'll soon discover that you need multiple people in this role so that they don't become a bottleneck. For distributed teams it's common to see each subteam have one or more POCs who are managed by a primary/chief POC. The primary POC typically works on the coordinating team with the chief architect (I'll talk about this role in a future blog posting) and the program manager (also a topic for a future blog posting).
- Train them in agile business analysis skills. The person(s) in the POC role need good business analysis skills. If fact, it's common for people who were formerly BAs for traditional teams to step into the POC role, particularly with BAs who originally come from the business side of your organization. This strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. As a BA they've likely got solid business knowledge but their instincts may motivate them to take a documentation-driven approach to providing information to the development team instead of a collaboration-based approach. Be careful.
- Consider the full system delivery lifecycle. There's far more to the POC role than supporting the development team during Construction iterations. During "Iteration 0", the Inception phase for an Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) project or the warm-up phase for an Eclipse Way project, the POC(s) will often lead the initial requirements envisioning efforts. The product backlog, or better yet your work item list, needs to come from somewhere after all. During the release iteration(s), the Transition phase for DAD or the End-Game phase for Eclipse Way, the POC(s) will focus on communicating the upcoming release to the stakeholder community, will be actively involved with any final user acceptance testing (UAT), and may even be involved with training end users.
In my January 2008 column in Dr Dobb's Journal, I provide detailed advice about how to scale the way that you work with stakeholders on Agile projects by applying the practices of Agile Model Driven Development (AMDD). There's no magic solution, you just need to choose to organize yourself effectively. The good news is that you can easily work with stakeholders at scale.