The role of a Product Owner with in Scrum teams or that of a Customer in XP teams is critical to the success of the product. What to do? – when they take vaction. What are your options? Say your product owner is going on a planned vacation for a couple of weeks, effectively unavailable to the team for an entire sprint. Based on my experience at coaching and working with Agile teams.

Options that do not work:

1. The business owner (PO’s boss) takes the solo role of the product owner over.

Pro: Business Owner is the single representative voice of customer. Business Owner has the authority and the responsibility to make product decisions.

Con: S/He is not available for much of the time, delaying decisions.

Con: Business Owner does not have detailed knowledge of the domain.

 Your PO’s boss most often will not have time to spend with the team and lack of domain knowledge renders the business owner dangerous to provide direction for a sprint. Also, given his seniority he  may  have other important stuff to take care, like assuming non-PO responsibilities that your PO was fulfilling within the organization.

2. Hybrid: UX Questions go to Interaction Designer, Reporting Questions go to Business Intelligence Analyst, Strategic Product Questions go to the Business Owner. Scrum master is quarter back for these questions – ensuring they are routed to the right place. When there are unresolved questions, they are decided by Business Owner.

Pro: Balances workload among contributing experts

Con: More workload on the scrum master

Con: Communication may break down between different members

Con: Who accepts stories?

Too many people wearing the virtual PO hat with the real PO in vacation and the real-temporary PO behind the scenes. Too much confusion for anyone’s taste.

3. The product owner postpones vacation.

Pro: Team doesn’t loose their product owner

Con: Delay in vacation causes trip prices to climb in the summer

 This option is really not sustainable, people ought to be able to take vacation and not penalized for doing a good job.

4. Get another analyst to come up to speed. Someone comes on the project two weeks earlier to understand the domain and serves as proxy during the sprint.

Pro: Keeps the single decision maker.

Pro: Availability of analysts is more realistic than Business Owner taking this over

Con: Unfamiliar with the domain.

Startup time/cost to get a proxy product owner ready means effort spent by current PO and other team members during prior sprint which may cause drop in delivery of valuable functionality that would have been delivered otherwise.

5. Product Owner answers emails from Europe with 1 day time lag

Pro: Single decision maker is kept

Con: Time delay for questions, reducing velocity

Then it is not a vacation and true product owners take vacations!

What can you do?

One of the team member assumes a dual role of Product Owner and Team member. Ensure that this is not the scrum master.

Sooner or later, the PO has to trust the team to make domain level/product level decisions. Hopefully during these previous sprints the team has had an insight into PO’s thinking process and gained insight into PO’s implicit knowledge about how the product should work and feel. There may be some Subject Matter Expertise, like biz rules, that they need from other Analysts and they can ask these SME’s for guidance however the responsibility of final product should not seep out of the Scrum team (SM + PO + Dev team). Also, having a team member play this dual role is better than

i. Training a new person to play proxy role. (option 4)

ii. Getting a less domain knowledge person make decisions (option 1)

iii. Causing identity crisis for the rest of organization (option 2)  😉

The worst that can happen is that the person who is playing the dual roles, blows-up a two week sprint.  On the bad side, 2 – weeks’ worth time and effort is lost. However on the good side, the PO will know how well the development team has so far understood PO’s product vision and incremental steps so far (previous sprints) towards that vision. A great learning opportunity! (Above mentioned worst case can also happen with option 1, 2 and 4 however there can be tendency to cop out and blame the “outsider” rather than look inwards and see where a team can learn.)

There are two characteristics that I seek in my suggested solution:

1. Learning opportunity

2. Avoid diffusion/confusion of responsibility

Many thanks to Ed Kraay, who recently helped one of our client product owner’s to fulfill his vacation commitment.