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Scrum – the Hard Bits

Every time I ramp up a new Scrum project I know I will encounter at least three major challenges – or the 'hard bits' as I call them. So I find myself spending a lot of time educating Scrum teams and stakeholders about how to lessen their impact.

In my experience the hard bits are:

1. Growing a good Product Owner
2. Having good stories in the product backlog
3. Managing expectations around delivery

Achieving the first helps foster the second, and the second helps mitigate the third. The rest is easy (or at least less hard). Let’s look at each one in turn. 

Growing a good Product Owner

Among other things, the Product Owner is responsible for the quality and prioritisation of the product backlog, the setting of the sprint goal, and acceptance of the potentially shippable increment. In essence, the Product Owner is the candy wrapper around the creation of the software.  At one end, they ensure a healthy backlog is in place, which then (in part) is fed into the sausage factory through which working software is produced. At the other end, the Product Owner then (hopefully) accepts the increment. Rinse and repeat.

If the Product Owner cannot create or refine product backlog items, they must find people who can help them out – business analysts, subject matter experts, and even developers. Of course, if any of these people are part of the Scrum team, their committed capacity will need to reflect the time they spend helping the Product Owner with the backlog. The time commitment of the Product Owner, and potentially their helpers, should not be underestimated. It is significant – especially in the beginning. If you are lucky, your Product Owner will gradually take more responsibility and keep the product backlog healthy and shiny, making the composing of subsequent sprints a piece of cake. 

Having good stories in the backlog

The $64 million question is what constitutes a good story? In my experience this changes along the Scrum journey as the team learns how to work together and gets a better handle on the project domain. In any case, it should start with an agreed Definition of Ready.  

Just like the Definition of Done, the Definition of Ready is a contract that the Scrum team agrees with the Product Owner, outlining the minimum acceptable story bits needed before the team can commit to delivering it. A value statement, acceptance criteria, and a unique priority are key. Understanding and applying the INVEST mnemonic is also valuable.

Having good stories is the foundation of a healthy backlog and sets the team up for success. With good stories, commitments are easier to get and sprint goals more likely to be reached. Be prepared for this to take time, as it is hard for a newly formed team working in a new business domain to know what constitutes a good story. 

Managing expectations around delivery

A Scrum framework allows us to embrace change, but can come at the cost of certainty. This is one of the most difficult challenges when trying to sell Scrum. Therefore, it continually needs to be talked about so the Product Owner understands what it means to the delivery of the product.  

In most cases, change results from experiences and influences that cannot be predicted at the start. But those experiences and influences, when allowed to inform decision making, can deliver the most value to the software at that moment. Change drives better software and helps to minimise deviations from expectation or reality.

The trick is to accept change along with the uncertainty that comes with multiple sprints. At the beginning of a sprint a team commits to delivering a number of stories. But change during the sprint can mean some stories will not be delivered when expected. That leads to a balancing act between change now at the cost of some short term goals, versus the possibility of bigger wins later on. In any case the working software that’s produced will still deliver the most value available at that time through that team. The question is – is it enough to keep the Product Owner happy?

Posted by: Lee Herd, Architect, Architecture Services | 08 July 2015

Tags: Agile, Development, Frameworks, Scrum


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