What’s a Product Owner To Do?

When I coach companies on Scrum and Agile Methodologies, I’m used to having dedicated, co-located Product Owners and teams. Lately it seems, especially with large corporations involved in an Agile transition, Product Owners and Scrum Masters are leading multiple project teams; often they are not co-located. It can be challenging when trying to coach teams on Agile Manifesto values, such as: Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools. Often during these transitions, companies expect a PO to be a part-time Product Owner: doing PO work in addition to his/her day (or real) job. Many times I have had Product Owners ask me to help justify their full-time involvement so that their supervisors understand the extent of the time commitment involved with the role. I have done this by describing what a typical Product Owner does each day. So in this post, I am going to jot down a  (by no means exhaustive) list of what a Product Owner does on a daily basis (in no specific order):

  • Attends the team’s daily planning meeting (aka standup) to understand the team’s progress and issues towards the sprint goals.
  • Captures customer requirements (and wish lists) by writing (or helping others write) User Stories.
  • Accepts/rejects completed User Stories.
  • Prioritize and update the backlog.
  • Is available to the team each day to answer questions and clarify stories.
  • Verifies that stories are in the proper format, contain valid confirmation (aka Acceptance Criteria), and  are in-line with the product vision and scope. This includes any necessary design details, business rules, etc.
  • Makes sure that project/product vision and goals are clearly defined and communicated to everyone.
  • Works with the team to ensure stories meet the agreed upon “Definition of Ready” before pulling them into the sprints.
  • Helps remove obstacles that the team and Scrum Master cannot remove.
  • Makes sure that the Scrum Team has a direct connection with end users through story development and the Sprint Review.
  • Keeps stakeholders informed on project status and how much value has been generated for money spent.

In addition to that, on a bi-weekly or as needed basis:

  • Participate in the demo and retrospective meetings.
  • Work with the team to groom the Release backlog.
  • Work with the team to plan the iterations.
  • Meets with customers and stakeholders on a regular basis to field questions and inform them of project/product updates and changes.
  • Conducts the Sprint demo with the team to present the incremental functionality to users and stakeholders.

Feel free (or compelled) to add your own. My thanks to Bob Schatz @Agileinfusion for his sage advice and input.

Better Daily Planning Meetings: Asking the Right Questions

When coaching teams and observing their daily planning (aka standup) meetings I often hear the following questions asked:

  • What did you work on yesterday?
  • What will you work on today?
  • What is impeding your work?

These same questions are asked even with experienced teams. But are these the right questions to ask in a daily planning meeting? I submit that teams that ask these questions are in need of a paradigm shift. Are the answers to these questions really what we want to hear? I doubt it. What we really want to know is: How are we doing towards our goals in this iteration? So the focus should be less on the work and more on what actually got completed. Try these questions instead:

What did you get done yesterday?

What will you get done today?

What is preventing you from getting work done?

In other words, the focus should be on completing work, not just doing work. It is a somewhat subtle yet important point, that has other ramifications on how we do Scrum: We need to be breaking tasks down into small enough chunks to get accomplished in a day. If our goal is to complete user stories and get them accepted every two-three days, then tasks should be one day or less in length (in ideal time). It also means if tasks (or work) are not getting completed on a daily basis, we may have hidden impediments.

Blame != Accountability

I am often asked how teams are held accountable in Scrum and Agile methodologies. Many teams and Scrum Masters often confuse accountability with blame. To start, let’s make sure we understand the definitions of blame and accountable:

— adj
1. responsible to someone or for some action; answerable
2. able to be explained
— n
1. responsibility for something that is wrong or deserving censure;culpability
2. an expression of condemnation; reproof
3. be to blame  to be at fault or culpable

Notice the difference?

Blame has a negative connotation and is often assigned to a single person. e.g. You messed up and it is your fault…

Accountability is not assigned, it is something the team, rather than the individual, owns. It is not positive or negative; it is connotation-less e.g. We did not fulfill our obligation/commitment – let’s find out why.

Blame is born of malice and ego. People who wish to assign blame are usually unhappy with anything less than a public flogging; which is why they are the first to shift the blame to someone else. It’s like watching a children’s game of Hot Potato.

Accountability is born of maturity and curiosity. People who are accountable are genuinely interested in finding cause (not fault) and improving the maturity of the team. Disciples of Edwards Deming will assert that the individual is never to blame; only the process is at fault. Blaming an individual removes focus from fixing the system.

To answer the original question: accountability occurs organically as part of the Scrum process. The team is committing to a Sprint, Release, etc. Who owns that commitment? The team does, not an individual. The team is not only making a commitment to the Sprint or Release, but also to each other. If the Sprint fails, the team will perform a retrospective to investigate why it failed. The only way accountability can happen is if the commitment is truly owned by the team. The team should care that they did not complete all of the work in the Sprint, and why the work wasn’t completed; but not to the point where blame needs to be assigned.

The team has the chance to hold itself accountable many times during the project lifecycle:

  • The team will be held accountable on a daily basis during the standup meeting. How are we doing on our Sprint goals? Do we need help? What is preventing us from getting work done?
  • The team will be held accountable during the Demo. Did we deliver what we promised? Was it of sufficient quality?
  • Finally the team will hold itself accountable during the retrospective. Did we honor our working agreements? What could we have done better? How will we improve next time? A team needs to be careful how it decides to run its retrospective, lest they start drifting back into the blame game.

In addition to the original question, newer Scrum teams often ask how tasks are assigned in Scrum (or who assigns them). This is an ancillary opportunity to discuss the concept of accountability. The answer is: tasks are not assigned, team members volunteer for tasks. Assigning tasks prevents accountability, by not allowing teams to decide how the work will get done.

To increase accountability within the team, I have found the following suggestions helpful:

  • In Backlog Grooming, only allow those that are actually doing the work, to estimate the story. Scrum Master and Product Owner do not participate (unless they are going to be working on the story).
  • In iteration planning, only allow those doing the work, to create the tasks. Furthermore, make sure you don’t assign tasks. Let the team members volunteer.
  • During standups, have the team face each other and let the team decide who and how they will report on tasks. Product Owner and Scrum Master should act as chickens unless there is an impediment to address.
  • During the Retrospective, let the team decide how they will run the retrospective. The Scrum Master can facilitate and act as scribe.

What opportunities and/or techniques have you found to increase accountability and reduce blame among your teams?