Archive for product-owner tag

My Team Works Hard But We Never Seem To Finish. Why Not?

We’ve all experienced this. Your team seems to be working hard. In fact, you know your team is working hard because you’re right there in the trenches with them. But, no matter how hard your team works, they never seem to actually get anything finished.

If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. Most teams face this problem at some point in their development. However, despite how common this problem is it’s actually quite easy to overcome.

Why It Happens

To overcome this problem you first have to understand why it happens, in the first place. Most often this is due to two reasons.

First, it can happen because your team is accepting work from outside of the Sprint. This is the “can’t wait” work that wasn’t planned for during your team’s Sprint Planning, but reared it’s head after the Sprint has begun. Sometimes this happens because the Scrum Master is unable to head off a major stakeholder. Or sometimes the Scrum Master simply can’t make that stakeholder understand the impact that this new work will have on the team’s outcome. Or even other times, the Scrum Master may not even be aware of the unplanned work, in the first place.

But regardless of the reason, if your team is spending time working on unplanned work instead of the work they had planned for the Sprint, then they may look busy but they’re unlikely to finish what you expect them to.

Second, it can happen because your team is working on too much work at once. This can be counter-intuitive at first, but if your team decides to tackle all of their work at once then the team will make surprisingly little progress on any of their work. This is because the team’s total effort will be spread across a much wider surface area resulting the in team making very little forward progress.

In addition, on many teams when the amount of work in progress is not closely tracked, it can be common for some individuals to begin work on one item and then move to a second item before the first item is complete. Once again, this can create an image of very busy individuals on a team, but with very little actual work in result.

Luckily, there are solutions for both of these situations that will get your team back on track and back to finishing the amount of work that you know they’re capable of.

Make It Visible

In the first case, where the team is continuing to work on items outside of the Sprint, work with your team to craft a clearly defined Sprint Goal that describes the goal that the team should accomplish with the work in the next Sprint. Once your team is in agreement about the goal, share the goal with your stakeholders so that everyone understands what your team plans to accomplish during the next Sprint and how this Sprint Goal contributes to your overall product goals. Then, when outside work begins to appear during the Sprint, you can work with your stakeholders to evaluate how that work maps to the goal the team has selected for the Sprint and what effect accepting the work may have on that goal.

If you’re still unable to prevent the work from being worked on during the Sprint, then make a special effort to estimate the newly accepted work and add it the Sprint board. You can even dedicate a reserved row of the Sprint board for this type of work, or use a different colored card so the unplanned work is immediately obvious. This visual differentiation will make visible the impact that the unplanned work is having on the work that was originally planned in pursuit of the Sprint Goal. In addition, the estimated points will allow you to better communicate to your stakeholders during the Sprint Review what percent of the team’s effort was spent on work that didn’t directly contribute to the Sprint Goal.

Both of these actions will help your stakeholders stop thinking of the Sprint as an empty bucket that work can simply be poured into, and instead begin to think of the Sprint as a strategically planned batch of work that moves the team closer to a stated goal.

Limit Your Throughput

In the second case, where the team is working on too much work at once, work with your team to establish work in progress limits, commonly known as WIP limits, on the key states of your Sprint board.

A WIP limit restricts the number of items that can be in a given state at any time. For example, in the image below, a WIP limit of 3 has been assigned to the Development column and a WIP limit of 2 has been assigned to the Testing column. This means that at any given time, no more than 3 items can be in development at one time and no more than 2 items can be in test at one time.


What happens if the WIP limit is reached? Then your team must work together to figure out how to complete the items in the column where the limit has been reached to make room for new work, thus allowing more work to flow through the process.

For example, imagine that a developer on your team completes the an item and attempts to move it to the Testing column. However, the Testing column has already reached its limit. The developer must work with your team’s testers to understand how they can help clear the existing the items from the Testing column. This may mean that the developer needs to assist the tester with their work so they can complete the items currently waiting to be tested, or that that team as a whole needs to make a greater investment into automated testing so that the testing process is more efficient overall. Regardless of the solution, the new item cannot be added to the Testing column until the existing items have been cleared.

While at first, WIP limits may seem as if they would cause a team to move slower, the opposite is actually true. WIP limits incentive your team to move work to completion, rather than to simply start it. This results in more work being completed by your team which allows them to reach their goals faster.

Focus on Finishing

Many teams look busy but surprisingly few actually complete the amount of work that may be expected of them. But, by defining clear goals for each Sprint that your team can aim for, and then incentivizing them to focus on finishing the work required to complete those goals, you can ensure that your team actually delivers the value that your stakeholders expect.

Do you want to learn more about how you can help your team deliver work more efficiently? Check out my course series, Product Owner Fundamentals, to learn how you can help your team reach their highest potential and deliver a great product to market.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Reverse User Story

Putting Value First With The Reverse User Story

User Stories are a great way to translate your users’ needs into real tasks that your team can work with. They’re succinct, lightweight, and flexible. But what if you could make them even better by moving the “why” of the story to the beginning?

To understand how you can improve them even further, let’s start by looking at an example of a User Story…

User Story format

This format answers the important questions clearly, but it keeps the most important part of the story…the benefit…until the end. The benefit, or the “So I can…” part of the story, is how you ensure that your team understands why they are building this story and how it will contribute to your overall vision for your product. Without clearly stating this benefit you risk adding functionality that doesn’t move your product towards its vision.

Saving this part of the story until the end means that we ignore it or even leave it out completely. The result of this is that the benefit of the story is shortchanged.

Turning the Problem on Its Head

The Reverse User Story, on the other hand, moves this important clause to the beginning of the story.  This format, inspired by the Reverse Stand Up, recognizes that the benefit is the most important part of the story and therefore it should appear first.  Building on the example above, our Reverse User Story would look like this…

Reverse User Story formatMoving the benefit to the beginning of the story forces your team to first think about the business value and resulting benefits of your work. If you’re unable to articulate a benefit for a story then this can be a warning sign that you don’t understand the story as well as you thought you did. This may mean that the story still needs fleshing out or even that it may not be worth the effort required to bring it to fruition.

Finding Balance…Or the Zen of Release Management

Bringing the expected benefits to the forefront can also aide in long term exercises like Release Planning. For example, if the majority of stories selected for a release seem to have similar benefits then this can be a hint at the theme that’s emerging for that release. Alternatively, if too many stories have the same benefit then this can serve as a warning that you’re weighing the release too heavily towards one specific feature set while starving another.

Shifting the focus to the benefit can also help identify stories in the backlog that are duplicating value. Recall that one of the goals of Scrum is to optimize the ROI of the development team. To this end, if more than one story is accomplishing the same end goal then this can be an opportunity to drop a duplicate story in favor of another that may bring more value to the product.

Drawing in the Team

Bringing the business goals of the story to the forefront draws the team into the discussion.  This can even lead to the discovery of alternative approaches as to how those goals may be met.

For example, recall that the original idea of your story was to allow a customer to save items for later.  You’d assumed that the only way to do this was to make their shopping cart persistent.  But, perhaps someone on the team suggests instead providing a wishlist where the customer could store items for long term. This would result in the story being changed to…

So I can save items for later,
As a customer,
I want to add items to a wish list.

This change may even spawn additional conversations regarding the opportunities that the wish list could open up. Perhaps the customer could share their wish list with friends who are shopping for them.  Or, maybe they could even post them to their social networks. This would give you the opportunity to also capture sales from friends of the customer.  This could even happen when your original customer isn’t quite ready to buy an item themselves.

None of these ideas would have ever been suggested if the developers had not first been encouraged to consider the overall benefit they were trying to achieve rather than simply focusing on the action.

Putting This Technique to Use

Though a Reverse User Story has many advantages over the format it still may not be right for every situation.  Specifically, the classic format’s simplicity and broad adoption make it a good choice as a starting point for introducing the concept of User Stories to new teams.

But, if your team seems to be missing the bigger picture of the stories or is becoming mired in the details then this twist on the classic format may be just what you need to shift everyone’s focus away from specific actions and back to the overall goal of the product.

Want to learn even more neat techniques to get the most out of User Stories? Check out my course, Creating Effective User Stories, for easy techniques that will have you writing better User Stories today.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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3 Ways Product Owners Can Help with a Great Sprint Planning

A great Sprint Planning session sets the tone for the entire Sprint. Your team leaves the session energized, excited, and with a clear picture of how to hit the ground running in the new Sprint. But, what if things don’t go as well as you’d hoped? Then your team will leave the session tired and frustrated.  They will leave without a clear idea of how to get started on their new set of work. They may even leave without any idea of what their goal for the next Sprint even is.

If you’re a Product Owner, you may appreciate the importance of the Sprint Planning session but consider a successful planning session the responsibility of the Scrum Master. While this may be true, there are a few simple tricks that you can use to help your team get the most out of this critical ceremony.

Paint a Clear Picture

The Sprint Planning session is your opportunity to paint a clear picture of the upcoming Sprint and the objective that you hope to complete. But to do so, you must come prepared with both an engaging vision for your team as well as fully prepared to discuss the details of each Product Backlog item that you’ve selected to support that vision.

The details that you provide will be essential for helping your team appreciate the depth and complexity of the items that you’ve selected. And, it’s these details that will help your team give as accurate of an estimate, as possible.

Mind Your Body Language

Just accept it, it’s going to happen. Sometimes your team will throw an estimate on an item that’s higher than you expected. But when it does happens, how you react will play a major role in setting the tone for your relationship with your team.

On many teams, the Product Owner is treated as a figure of implicit authority. For this reason, it’s imperative that you be acutely aware of your body language, facial expressions, or any other behavior that may put pressure on your team to reduce their estimates.  Even if this pressure is inadvertent.

Pressuring your team to reduce their estimates won’t reduce the actual work behind the estimate and will only make your job harder.  This is because your own long-term planning lives and dies by the validity of the estimates that your team provides. If you pressure your team into giving inaccurate estimates then it will be your release plan that suffers in the end.

Instead of applying pressure, take this opportunity to ask questions. Why is the estimate higher than you expected? Or, what hidden complexity exists in the item that you didn’t see before? Taking the time to understand why the estimate is higher than you expected may reduce your chances of being surprised in the future.  In fact, it may even uncover an alternative path to achieving the same goal with less complexity.

Remember That Estimates Are a Forecast

Above all, remember that the estimates your team provides are a forecast…not a commitment. Holding a team to their estimates creates a culture of fear. And, in such cultures, your team will invariably begin to sandbag their estimates to protect themselves from the possibility of occasionally under-estimating an item.

Once this happens, your team will begin to continually pad their estimates to create a larger and larger margin of safety. The result, of course, being that the amount of actual work completed each Sprint will continue to dwindle.

But, there’s an even worse casualty of this trend. Learning can only occur when a team feels safe enough to embark on experiments and learn from their failures. If a team is punished for every mistake then all learning will eventually cease. And, without the ability to learn, your organization cannot hope to compete in the world of product development.

Helping Your Team Succeed

The role of the Product Owner is easily one of the most important roles on a Scrum Team but is also arguably the most difficult. The Sprint Planning session is your opportunity to invest in your relationship with your team each Sprint. Because it’s only with an ongoing investment in that relationship will your product see long-term success in the market.

Have you suddenly found yourself in the Product Owner role and want to know how you can use this role to help your team be successful? Check out my course series, Product Owner Fundamentals, to learn how you can help your team reach their highest potential and deliver a great product to market.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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What’s the Right Amount of Backlog Refinement?

Many teams struggle with getting the right level of detail in their backlog.  If the backlog is too vaguely defined, then the team picks up stories that aren’t immediately actionable which can slow them down.  On the other hand, if the backlog is too well defined then it becomes rigid and fails to evolve as the product takes shape.  It can even stifle the creativity of the team as they try to find the best option for achieving each outcome.

So, how do you strike the right balance when creating your own backlog?  In his excellent book Scrum Product Ownership, Bob Galen introduced the 20/30/50 Rule for product backlog refinement to address this very problem.

Here’s how it works…

The First 20 Percent

20% of the stories on the backlog should be well refined and ready to be picked up at any time.  These are the stories that are immediately actionable that your team can begin work on with little hesitation.  You and your team will need to agree on exactly what makes a story actionable for them, but here are a few options to consider as a starting point….

  1. Each story has a stated objective and corresponding business justification.  While this is often expressed in the popular format “As a…., I want…., So that…” format, the specific format isn’t important as long as the team knows what they’re trying to accomplish and why they’re trying to do so.
  2. Each story has defined acceptance criteria to give the team a clear and unambiguous picture of what the end state of the story should look like.
  3. Each story meets the agreed to Definition of Ready established by your team.  If your team has yet to establish their own, then the INVEST criteria is a good place to start to consider which qualities of stories are important to your team team which may not be as important.

The Next 30 Percent

RefinementThe next 30% of the stories on the backlog aren’t ready to be picked up by your team, but are in a good enough state that you as the Product Owner can have a discussion about these stories with your team and stakeholders to decide when these stories should be worked on…if ever.  

Expect these stories to contain no more than an objective and business justification and to be sized larger than the first 20%.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for many of these stories to simply exist as unrefined epics.  The goal for stories in this bucket are to pin a specific idea to the backlog so that it’s not lost as well as to facilitate a discussion around when it would make sense for the team to invest in tackling that story.  If the story is not specific then this discussion will meander and won’t be productive, but, if the story has already been too well defined then the creativity that would otherwise emerge from that discussion will be stifled.

The Final 50 Percent

The final 50% of stories are the least refined of them all.  These stories tend to be largest stories on the backlog and exist only as vague ideas of things the team would like to consider for the future.  If the previous set of stories tend to be at the Epic level, then these items are the Themes of your backlog.  

These stories are not ready for a team to work on and really aren’t even ready for a team to discuss.  Instead, these stories exist as placeholders for the Product Owner to periodically evaluate whether they still make sense for the direction of the product and, if they do, to begin to introduce them to the discussion.

Finding What Works

Structuring your backlog according to these rules of thumb will help you strike the balance between items that your team can be productive with immediately and items that still deserve more refinement.

Depending on your team and your product, you may find that you need to tweak the percentages to optimize the backlog for what works best in your organization.  You may also find that you need to experiment with whether these numbers correspond to the total remaining story points in your product backlog or to simply the total number of remaining product backlog items.  As with most opportunities in agile, experimentation will be the key to finding what works the best for your team.

However you decide to implement it, the 20/30/50 rule gives you a nice guideline of how much of your backlog should be ready at any time while keeping the risk of over refinement at bay.

Want to learn even more ways to slice your user stories so your team can start working with them immediately? Check out my course, Creating Effective User Stories, for easy techniques that will have you writing better user stories today.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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What, When, How: The 3 Levels of Strategic Agile Planning

When we think of agile, we often think of quick reactionary planning to the realities of a project as it unfolds.

For that reason, most discussions of agile planning focus on the short term. Our teams plan and synchronize at the daily level using recurring morning stand-ups. And, for those teams practicing Scrum, we plan at the iteration level using recurring sprint planning meetings.

Both of these practices are great for keeping a team on the same page tactically, but what about strategically?

Luckily, there are some simple techniques for aligning your team strategically as well as for helping them to think beyond the sprint.

Strategic agile planning comes down to three simple questions:

  1. What are we doing?
  2. When do we need it done?
  3. How are we going to get there?

The key is to remember that the answers to these questions will likely change as the development of your product progresses. But, by taking an iterative approach, you can keep your team on track to ensure that you deliver the right product at the right time.

So let’s take a look at these three questions in turn to see how each propels you down the path of creating a great product.

What are we building?

The most important decision that you need to make as a team is what are you building? But the question is often more complicated than that. Instead, the deeper question is what need should your product be solving.

One of the best ways to answer this question is with a visioning canvas. There are many variations of the canvas available, including the well-known Lean Canvas, but my personal favorite is Roman Pichler’s Product Vision Board.

Product Vision Board

The example that you see here is how a vision board for a streaming music service, named Ostinato, may look. Notice that the vision board starts at a higher level than the specific needs of the product and instead focuses on the overarching need that the product is trying to fulfill.

Some of the characteristics that you’ll discuss when creating a vision board include defining the specific user needs or market opportunity that the product is trying to fill, identifying the core user base that you’re targeting with the product, identifying potential competitors who may already be in the market, and discussing how the product will generate revenue.

The outcome of the visioning exercise is intentionally vague, as it is not used for planning the execution of the product, but rather to build alignment across the team of what the ultimate result of building the product should be.

Some teams refer to this exercise as “setting their North Star,” since the result is a guiding direction on where the team is heading without dictating the specific steps of how to get there.

Although your product vision is unlikely to change daily, you should expect it to evolve as you learn more about your target users, potential competitors and where your product can most effectively fit in the market.

For that reason, plan to repeat this exercise periodically to reevaluate core assumptions that you may be making about the competitive landscape, as well as to take a fresh look to help spot opportunities for growth.

To do this, a good rule of thumb is to repeat this exercise annually, though newer and more rapidly evolving products may benefit from a slightly more frequent cadence.

To get the full benefit from this session, you should expect it to be attended by the product’s executive sponsors, the relevant product management team and key technical representation such as the product architect.

Although members of the product delivery team such as engineers, testers and designers may benefit as well, be wary of growing the session too large and remember that the resulting vision may be more effectively conveyed to these team members by the architect and product manager after it’s complete.

When does it need to be done?

Now that you know what you’re building, the next question that you need to solve is when does it need to be done?

But, remember that you’re running an agile project, so rather than waiting until the entire project is complete, you’ll want to deliver in small increments to get as much feedback as possible along the way.

This combination of answering both when you want to deliver your overall product as well as how and when you want to make small incremental deliveries along the way will become your product roadmap.

Product roadmaps are high-level plans that show your product’s intended evolution over the next few releases. They show, at a high level, the overall strategic direction that you plan to take your product, as well as the different guide points along the way that will help get you there.

If the idea of long-term planning fills you with fear as images of Gantt charts dance in your head, don’t worry…there are better alternatives that we’ll discuss here.

Agile product roadmapping has become a hot topic in the past few years with several very nice tools coming on to the market. However, my favorite is still the free Goal Oriented Roadmap, or GO Roadmap, which was created by the very same Roman Pichler that I mentioned previously.

What sets the GO Roadmap apart is that rather than focusing on the features required for each release, it instead focuses on the goal of each release. This approach not only frees you from thinking about implementation details and sequencing too early, but it also leaves the responsibility to define the specific features of each release until a time when you know more about them.

GO Product RoadmapIn the example here, we’ve created a GO Roadmap for our streaming music service, Ostinato.  Notice that any features defined here are very high level and intentionally lack specific detail.

Forcing your team to define features too early often creates an unrealistic impression of certainty for your product and can even lock you into a less than optimal feature set too early.

Instead, thinking at a higher level about the overarching goals that each release should meet will free you to think strategically not only about the impact of each release, but also how the entire release cycle for the product fits together as a whole.

While your roadmap won’t change frequently, expect to revisit it more often than your product vision. If you’re revisiting your product vision once a year, then revisiting your roadmap quarterly would be a good rule of thumb.

To be effective, this session should include key technical personnel who can advise you to any technical dependencies or limitations that may affect the goals you’re laying out.

During each roadmapping session, your team should be focusing primarily on the release that’s immediately upcoming. While you’ll still want to leave time to discuss subsequent releases, expect that they will be more vaguely defined and more volatile as they’re farther out on the horizon.

GO Product RoadmapAs a rule of thumb, you should be able to draw a diagonal line from the last objective of the nearest release to the last objective of the farthest release showing how each release becomes progressively less defined as you move toward the horizon.

How are we going to do it?

The final piece of strategic planning is to lay out a plan for how your team will approach the next release. This is done with a tool that’s similar to the GO Roadmap we discussed previously, but with a more fine-grained feel.

While this release plan contains much of the same information found in your roadmap, it also adds lower level information such as a prioritized list features that will be tackled in each release.

Release PlanThese features can be prioritized by whatever means is the most comfortable for your team … as long as they are prioritized. I’ll often use the MoSCoW prioritization technique, which has the advantage that it allows for items to be explicitly removed from a release.

Expect to revisit your release plan after each minor release, which should occur more frequently than the major releases detailed on your roadmap. For example, if you follow a release cadence of a major release at the end of each quarter with minor releases at the end of each subsequent month, then you should expect to revisit your roadmap quarterly and your release plan monthly.  The goal is to create a plan that represents what your team is currently working towards as well as to give you an idea of what lies in the future.

Ideally, your entire team should be involved in this meeting as they will be the ones who will deliver the work inside of each release.

And, as with the roadmapping discussion, you should be focused primarily on the next upcoming release and expect subsequent releases to be progressively less defined as you move out to the horizon.

In fact, the guiding principle of drawing a horizontal line from the last feature in the next release to the last feature in the farthest release works just as well for release plans as it does for roadmaps.

Seeing the big picture

Strategic agile planning is as much of an iterative exercise as anything else that we do in an agile context. The secret is to realize that no matter how confident you feel in your overall vision today, it’s very likely to change as your product grows and your market evolves around it.

By taking an agile approach to your strategic planning, you can significantly increase the odds that the product you deliver will make the impact that you envision.

This post was originally published on the Front Row Agile blog.

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