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Category Archives: Product Backlog

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Does Your Team Need Agile Coaching?

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If you or your team have invested any amount of time into understanding Agile or Scrum, you may have realized that learning what to do and actually doing it are far from the same thing. You certainly will have experienced roadblocks if you have attempted adopting Agile or Scrum in an environment burdened with hierarchy, legacy systems that don’t comply with innovative methods, or people problems. (Read: Complex Project Failures: How Labels, Hierarchy & Ego Create Disasters in Management)

There are significant barriers an organization faces in becoming truly Agile… and this is normal. Some organizations, the most innovative, are sometimes able to overcome these barriers on their own. But usually, they cannot.

Value of Agile Coaching

Consider the following questions:

  • How many high performance athletes have Coaches? Why?
  • Should organizations with high performance goals have Coaches?
  • Does your organization have high performance goals? Do you?
  • Do you have a business Coach or sports Coach? Does it make a difference? How?
  • Are the similarities between high performance at work and sports enough to value coaching in the workplace?

Make the leap of faith that it is equally valuable to have a Coach to bring out the best in a high performing athlete and a high performing team. An Agile Coach can be the high performance Coach your organization is missing to bridge you from where you’re at to what you want to achieve.

What Does Agile Coaching Do For Team?

Let’s start with a goal. A goal of Scrum is effective product delivery by the team, so let’s base our goal on that metric.

Goal: The team is able to execute 80 to 100 per cent of what they planned every Sprint, in a stable and reliable manner. Furthermore, the team has the confidence and belief in their capacity to reliably deliver, and can show how their progress impacts target release dates.

There are important subtexts in this goal statement: Stable, Reliable, and Confident.

Stability and reliability show that the team understands three things very well:

  • the nature of the work
  • the availability and capacity of team members to do the work
  • their ability to deliver together within the Scrum Framework in the context of the organization

Confidence is an indicator of strength of belief in the stability and reliability of the system. The stable and reliable system provides psychological safety. Confidence means people feel they have the ability to speak up to challenge or support decisions that impact them.

How Much Coaching Does Your Team Need?

When introducing Scrum and Agile to a new organization, the coaching is focused on helping the Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Scrum Team learn their roles. It teaches them how to use the Scrum Framework.

When coaching a new team that is co-located in a single location, we want enough coaching to really understand the people and the business context.  However, our goal is for the team to become stable, reliable, and confident. So, we want the teams to also work on their own so they learn to be self-reliant.

Depending on the business context, we will coach two to three days per week. Many software teams we’ve worked with often achieve the stated goal (example above) in 4 months.

Ideal Environment Versus Reality

The complexity of the environment; the state (maturity) of Agile adoption in the organization; and the size of the organization are all factors that conspire to increase the time it takes for teams to reach the goal.

Our experience has been that non-software teams can take much longer. A key factor is how dependent the team is on other parts of the organization to deliver their product.

Dedicated team members learn Scrum faster; learn how to work with other teams faster, and waste less time switching between tasks. Dedicated team members improve stability and reliability.

If we are coaching more than one team, the goal is the same. There can be some synergy and time-savings if the teams are working on the same product since their Sprint planning, reviews, and retrospectives may overlap.

Can You Skimp on Coaching and Still Succeed?

A common request we hear from some new clients is “What about just having the Agile Coach come for Sprint Planning, Sprint Review and Retrospective? Isn’t that enough?”

As with all iterative and incremental approaches, the speed that value is accrued from Agile Coaching is related to the cadence of a feedback loop. With coaching interaction, 1 day per sprint on a sprint boundary (review, retro, and planning) the team will be able to receive feedback and coaching around those sprint boundary events. This is valuable in terms of the team’s understanding of those events and how they interact with each other and the goals for the product. However, the context will be limited to those events as the coach has not been privy to information and circumstances as they arise during the Sprint. This means information and situations that could be used to help the team improve are not used, so improvements will likely take longer and be slower.

For example, Product Backlog refinement is an important facet of iterative/incremental development as it sets the stage for successful Sprint planning. Backlog grooming discussions happen throughout the Sprint, not at the Sprint boundary. The effectiveness of the Sprint planning is usually directly proportional to the effectiveness of the backlog grooming/refining conversations. Without an Agile Coach present, Product Backlog refinement does not receive Coaching. (Read: Lessons from a 10-Year Long Product Backlog)

Similarly, the discussions, actions, and escalations for impediments and retrospective actions occur all throughout the sprints so the Coach cannot advocate and support the needed changes to make teams more effective during Sprint execution.

So, in short, skimping on Agile Coaching does not, in the end, help you succeed.

Maximize Your Chances to Hit the Goal and Maximize Value of Your Agile Coaching Investment

Have you ever had Physiotherapy treatment, hired a Personal Trainer to exercise with, or taken tutoring or lessons? In these situations we quickly recognize that the success of the relationship depends on both parties. A Personal Trainer or Physiotherapist can’t make their client do their exercises when they are not around. However, these Professionals can accelerate outcomes by working more intensively with motivated clients to help them understand what they need to do, to offer feedback on how to get better and to share different exercises and expertise when certain treatments are not working as expected.

Maximizing the benefits from an Agile Coach is similar, in that working together more intensively to remove impediments, to improve the team’s situation, has a faster payoff. If Scrum team members, the Scrum Master, the Product Owner, and the supporting stakeholders take Scrum seriously and leverage the knowledge of the Agile Coach to maximize their effectiveness in supporting the implementation, then this will also accelerate the value they receive from the Agile Coach.

Gaining Agile Coaching can significantly accelerate your Agile adoption by:

  1. helping your teams get better faster
  2. showing stakeholders the behaviors that best support Scrum
  3. sharing practices, techniques and ideas that have worked in other clients
  4. advising against techniques that don’t work or cause problems

Once the Scrum team has hit the goal and is able to execute 80 to 100 per cent of what they plan every Sprint, in a stable and reliable manner, we will applaud their success as they have achieved the first step. From here, they can begin to learn more advanced topics beyond basic Scrum.

Learning and improvement is not a destination, it is a journey.

 


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Lessons from a 10-Year Long Product Backlog

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Product Backlog Management Tools: When & Why?

I am often asked, “What tool should we use for Scrum?” or “What tool would you recommend for managing a large Product Backlog?”

Recently the Product Backlog question came up regarding a tool called CaseComplete, so I’d like to share my experience with managing Product Backlogs in complex product development.

The 10-Year Product Backlog Story

 In 2009, I was coaching an Agile transition with a large European software client who had 400 developers across 5 locations. We were using Excel to manage the Product Backlog (PBL) with 12+ Product Owners and it was very painful. The Product Backlog had 1200 items in it and represented 4 years of future work by the whole development organization.

Product Owners would edit their own copies and then have to merge their changes manually in multi-day meetings. We started looking at Requirements Management tools like DOORs, RequisitePro, Rally, and others. Since the company had a license for IBM RequisitePro, we attempted to use it. However, RequisitePro was very difficult and inflexible. In many ways, it was worse then Excel. So, after some real world user testing, we abandoned it.

The Product Owners continued to add Product Backlog items and last I heard, in 2012, the PBL contained over 3000 items and was virtually impossible to manage. It also represented a massive 10 year inventory of work.

How Agile is a 10-year Product Backlog? Of course, it’s not Agile at all. On average, any new item entering this queue will take 10 years to complete.

Saying “No” Decreases Inventory and Increases Agility

If your Product Backlog is so big and complex that you think you need a tool (beyond cards or Excel) then most likely the problem is your Product Backlog itself.

If the Product Backlog is too big and too complex then the solution in not a tool, the solution is to simplify your Product Backlog.

Agile Manifesto’s first value is individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and this is the key value to make product development successful.

If there are hundreds of software developers building one product, maybe a tool will be valuable. However, my experience is that these tools actually reduce the amount of collaboration and shared understanding between the people defining what is needed and the teams doing the work.

The Three-Month Product Backlog

When I am coaching product management staff (POs, BAs, Directors, etc.) these days, my advice is to keep your Product Backlog to at most three months of work. Yes, only three months (queue catcalls and shouts of “that’s impossible here!!”).

Beyond three months, I coach POs to tell stakeholders that they will come back and consider new items next sprint, but for now they cannot put it into the Product Backlog unless they are going to remove something else.

This shortens conversations with stakeholders greatly, and makes the Product Backlog much easier to manage since it is only three months long. It also has the nice effect of keeping stakeholders engaged when they need to be. If stakeholders can’t get their item in the next three months they may look for alternatives, and that is a good thing.

Saying “no” to stakeholders increases their agility since they can consider alternatives (for example, they may buy a solution) instead of waiting years and becoming very frustrated as they did in the company with the 10-year Product Backlog.

A three-month Product Backlog works very well because it provides product Agility and gets rid of the need for useless complicated tools for huge and hard to manage Product Backlogs.

I am not saying tools cannot provide some value. They can. However, tools often enable bad behaviors that reduce communication and Agility.

Remember, individuals and interactions over processes and tools.