Will the real customer please stand up?

One of the prime requirements for the success of Agile Projects is to have an “onsite customer“. In reality the real customers rarely have either the time and often, the inclination to be involved with the development team on a full time basis. After all, there is a business that needs to be attended – things dont come to a standstill while the system is being developed. The accepted wisdom is to have business analysts serve as “proxy customers“, thereby leveraging the real customers’ time. Business analysts are presumed to have the necessary skills and experience to drive out the project requirements by having sessions with the real customer and therefore, be in the position to make the best decision for the project. So far so good.

Unfortunately,there is an additional layer that gets introduced within the fray.The real customer is often hands off, and a token customer is assigned to liaise with the business analyst. This is typically a junior member within the user community or a business analyst / domain expert working for the client.This person might have the knowledge of the functional area for the system, however they usually do not have the same level of authority and big picture outlook that the real customer does.

The risk of not having an onsite customer has now been replaced with a different type of risk – Risk of having a token customer. Listed below are some of its possible implications

1. The token customer’s future career / bonus is usually contingent on the mandated success of this project. Conventional wisdom about a successful project is the delivery of agreed functionality on time, on schedule and to the agreed resources. Usually such mandates are taken too literally and as a result, any form of negotiation is viewed as compromise.
2. Productivity of the team is assumed at the beginning of the project and subsequently, calibrated over a period of time during the iterations depending on the team’s performance. This may mean changes required either in scope, time or resources and usually, our token customer is not the best equipped to make the decision.
3. The token customer may have previous experience with developing a similar system and this could result in typical analysis anti-patterns such as “Re-inventing the wheel”,”Re-inventing the square wheel”, “Golden Hammer” etc. Scope creeps can occur as the token customer may try to shoehorn some requirements within the existing story list.
4. Difficult to establish the business case for the system as the token customer may not necessarily have the complete knowledge of the drivers.

Here are some of the mitigation strategies that have been tried before
1. Involve the real customer as much as possible, especially where key decisions need to be made. Showcases, iteration planning meetings, kickoffs etc. are ideal candidates for the customer involvement. Ensure that the meetings are short and therefore, would not tax the schedule of the customer heavily.
2.The success criteria for the project should get defined jointly between the team and the customer. This ensures that the mandate given to the token customer is aligned to the development team’s delivery commitment.
3. Educate the token customer on their roles and responsibilities within an Agile project. Give examples of different scenarios that occur within an agile project and the different decision points. Ensure that the escalation points are identified as well.
4. Manage the scope at story level tightly. By documenting all key assumptions made during the story identification, estimation and detailing, the BA will have the right arguments to make when negotiating with our token customer.
5. Structure the engagement to have a senior member of the development team emerge as a trusted advisor to the client.This senior member should be able to coach the real customers/ sponsors to identify the business value within the requirements.

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