Friday, November 27, 2015

Are problems your problem?

Many organizations, and likewise the individuals working there, struggle with the notion of "Problems".
A "shoot-the-messenger" culture makes it impossible to name, much less claim ownership for, problems. To be able to still deal with reality, the very term "problem", inherently considered bad and a career-killer, gets sugar-coated or diluted. People start talking about "impediments", "issues" instead - and avoid doing that as long and much as possible.

Problems are not bad

Innately, a "problem" is just a "problem". It means that something does not work out as originally planned. This is not bad, it just means we have to change the plan - we might still reach the desired outcome.
The first step is to accept that "problem" is a neutral term, indicating "need for change" - neither good, nor bad.

Apples and ... Problems

Let's compare a problem to an apple. You can either get the value from the apple (eating it) or let it rot. Once you have the apple, you either take advantage of it, or it spoils.  That's totally up to you.
Treat your problems the same way: When you see one, try to get as much value out of it as possible. By ignoring it, your value will be Zero, but you will still be stuck with the cost of disposal.

Where do Problems come from? 

Can't we just make a better plan to avoid problems? Don't problems just reveal the incompetence of the planner? These are typical questions from a problem-averse company.
But we must accept that the world isn't simple. Problems arise not only because we aren't omniscient, but also because nobody's perfect and the world is changing. While some organizations expect their managers to be omniscient and everyone on their staff to be perfect, they still don't live in a bubble: The world around them is still full of imperfection and is changing at a rapid pace.
Because of this, we can't plan for everything - and even if we did, the plan would still fail. And that's a problem.

A problem is no problem

Many people consider it a flaw to admit having a problem. Nothing could be further from the truth: Being keen in observing discrepancies between plans and how they work out indicates a good analytic capability. The biggest concern is that in a complex system, a problem in one area may require adjustments in another area. Only by communicating that there is need for adaption and why this need arises will the entire system remain stable.

No problem is a problem

Denial of problems or being completely oblivious about problems in the surroundings is a typical response by those who have been conditioned by their environment. Sentences like, "In our organization, there are no problems" are common in companies where the assumption is that "sufficiently intelligent people can plan and anticipate everything". Not only are both denial and obliviousness problems - an environment where openness and integrity are not valued is another problem.
Usually, an environment where nobody sees a problem is the most unhealthy, because needed change is often procrastinated until too late.

Talk about problems

You can improve the effectiveness of yourself, your work - and your organization with a few simple steps:
  1. Admit that problems exist. Call them what they are.
  2. Don't shoot the Messenger. People who name your problems are not your enemy, they want to help you improve.
  3. Live Continuous Improvement. Deal with problems before they grow out of proportion.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

3 Ways to increase your Retro effectiveness

Inspect and Adapt is at the heart of agility: "Responding to change over following a plan". The Retrospective is Scrum's standard ceremony to discuss potential improvements. However, especially new teams struggle at making Retrospectives effective. Consequently, the ineffective Retro becomes an impediment towards agility. Here are a few tips for new Scrum teams to increase the effectiveness of their Retrospectives.

Get a good room

Since in a Retro, you expect to make a significant change towards a meaningfully positive change, do not let the room hinder the team from coming up with good ideas for change.


Every minute spent on sidetracks and gimmicks destroys organizational value. Everyone has the responsibility to keep focused during the Retrospective and the Scrum Master's facilitation of the Retro should support this process as naturally as possible.


The best way to get a meaningful result out of the Retrospective is by being prepared. On the other hand, being completely unprepared is the best way to make any meeting for any reason whatever - completely ineffective.
Both good teams and Scrum Masters prepare the Retro in advance. Then, they follow through and turn this well-prepared Retro into meaningful and highly effective action.


Continuous Improvement, is the only way to reach high performance. The Retrospective is the standard mechanism of establishing Continuous Improvement.
On the downside, poor Retrospectives will result in inherently low agility.

A Scrum Master must frequently reflect, "How can we make our Retrospective more effective?" - and adjust their own behaviour accordingly.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Measuring Agile Transition Progress

Many organisations ask, "How do we know if we're making progress?" - and, the answer is usually "To measure is to know". So, we need to have a measurement system which will help us determine success.
It does not matter whether we are looking to understand whether we are asking, for example, if our Scrum transition is making meaningful progress or whether our organization overall is improving. The underlying question "How do we know" and the need for a measurement system remains.

Ditch the Bullshit metrics

Before we dig into "How can we properly measure?", let us look at a few improper measurement systems. Many traditionally minded companies are trying to measure progress by looking at stuff like "Are we becoming better at following our Plans?" , "Do we produce more Lines of Code?"  - or even completely pointless metrics like "Do we complete more Story Points?".
Some still struggle with a Capacity Planning mindset and try to use "hourly estimates" to track progress.

Let us ignore for this post the widely varying specific reasons why these metrics are bullshit. There is a common underlying theme here: "All of these metrics are performance metrics." The problem you are trying to solve is not a performance problem, so why would you use performance metrics to solve a problem outside that domain? That's like measuring room temparature to figure out when the next bus arrives - bullshit.

Change your mindset for appropriate measurement

Regardless of whether you are looking at product development, agile transition or organization transformation - all of these also have a common underlying theme: You're not doing it for fun. You are trying to solve a problem. 

Therefore, the first step towards an appropriate progress metric: Admit that you actually have a problem - and acknowledge that you are trying to solve it. Without the honesty, "We have a problem and we want to know if we are solving it", you will never end up with an appropriate measurement system - because your measurement system should also acknowledge that you are dealing with the root cause of the problem.

Accept an undefined state

Traditional planning expects plans to be made up in advance, and then a report can be produced to state "Topic X = 20% progress". This, however, requires that you can predetermine the end point.
Unfortunately, when you are trying to solve a problem, that may not be so easy. Why do you still have the problem if you know exactly how to solve it? 
The first step is to acknowledge that there may be a total of 3 things you are not sufficiently aware of:
1 - Where do you stand (A)?
2 - Where do you want to go (B)?
3 - What is actually the best way from A to B?

A plan assumes that both A and B, as well as the path inbetween, is understood sufficiently well to define the path for transition. 
So, you must accept the idea that status measurement will not work out as well.

Define the Primary Issue

It's not as simple as stating "We did Waterfall, now we want to do Scrum" - that is not the problem you are trying to solve. Your problem is usually more deep-rooted, such as "Our customers are dissatisfied with the quality or delivery speed of our product" - otherwise, why would you change your current way of working?
Once you understand that you are not trying to go from Traditional Project Management to Agile Development, you will understand that you need to ask and answer completely different questions in order to even understand "Where do we stand?" - likewise, the question "Where do we want to go?" looks different.
For example, "We stand at ..." becomes "We are losing customers faster than we can gain new customers" - and automatically, the real question to answer is no longer "How can we increase self-organization?" - but: "What can developers do that would reduce our loss of customers?"

Consequently, the metric we'll be talking about is no longer driven by the agile framework of our choice, but by the primary problem we are trying to solve. 

Define transient success

Our agile transition is not defined "successful" when we are, for example, 97% compatible to Scrum based on the Nokia (Scrumbut) test - but when we have reached an organizational state where the Primary issue (and hopefully many others) is resolved.

We also need to understand that never does an organization only have one problem. Organizations are complex systems which are in themselves subjected to a chaotic system - the Market. By the time we have resolved one issue, it may already have changed - or, our understanding thereof may have changed.

Much rather than trying to make a better plan, we should simply accept that at any given time, we are not aiming to complete the plan, but trying to reach a more positive future state. When our understanding of the problem we have - or actually the problem itself - changes, then we should simply accept this. 
We can acknowledge that the future is shifting, the steps made in the past were useful - but that the next action in the present must be different from what we had assumed. 

Accept adaptive measurement

Every change that solved a problem yesterday can be considered yesterday's success. It was a real success, but today we need to solve a different problem, so we need a new way of discerning this success. In today's measurement system, yesterday's success may be insignificant or even counterproductive - so, we should no longer pursue yesterday's metrics.

Track meaningful problems

The most meaningful metric you can utilize is actually quite simple, and it's rather binary: "Are we actually solving our problems?"
We can elaborate this metric to a finer granularity by breaking down our Epic Problem.
For instance, "Poor quality" would refine into more intricate problems, such as: "Problems reported by Customer", measuring "How often and how long is the same problem being reported by customers before it gets resolved?" - "How many times did we miss an obvious software defect?" - "How long does it take us to catch a defect?"etc. etc. All of these metrics can then be easily drilled down and resolved, one by one.
Unfortunately, with these metrics in place, we most likely won't reach perfection, so our "target state" (e.g. Zero Defects@Customer, Zero Effort Testing, 100% Test Coverage) is more of a utopia than achievable. Therefore, tracking progress our "Epic Problem" becomes pointless.

Define how big you want the problem to be

The fact that our Epic Problem may never be 100% resolved should not stop us from defining precise targets for the definitely meaningful sub-problems.
For instance, we can determine: "Reduce defects in delivered product by 50% by end of year" - "Reduce acceptance test duration by 25% by next month without decreasing quality" - etc. These are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound: SMART measurement.

As seen from the two examples above, these metrics have no direct correlation with agility - likewise, they can become quite complicated to track. We can still use agile principles, practices and frameworks to improve these metrics. Afterwards, we can determine if the application of agility did help us reach these objectives.

Keep it simple and Lean

While some people feel the need for precision and metrical process control, we don't really need a complex, precise measuring system. Usually, we have a clear understanding of what is "good enough". We don't want to over-engineer. If someone says "We don't test enough", it may well suffice to say "Well - improve testing until we test enough". The person who said "It's not enough" may have a decent understanding of what "enough" means. 
You should only negotiate clear numerical goals if you presume disputing opinions.

Own your problems

The steps described above indicate that dealing with problems is very, very similar to the responsibility of a Product Owner - and that's no coincidence. You want somebody to take ownership. Someone who drives the resolution of the Epic Problems you are trying to solve - and also someone who drives the resolution of each workable sub-problem you are dealing with: You naturally end up with a Chief PO (Problem Owner) and Area PO's (Problem Owners).

Get a Problem Board

Probably the easiest way of dealing with your problems is to track them just like your team tracks the Stories on their Storyboard. You can see what's "toDo", what's "in Progress" - and what's "Done". This storyboard becomes the natural information radiator of your progress on your Agile journey.

Organize Problem Solving

If you are moving towards Scrum, it also makes sense to arrange an entire Scrum-like organization around the Problem Board. You can work with Plannings ("What problem will we tackle in this sprint?") - dailies ("What problem have we solved today - etc.") - hold Retros ("How did our problem solving go?") etc. etc.

Track Problem Solving

You are becoming "more agile" when you are getting faster and better at solving problems. Keeping a high level overview of how long it takes, on average, from the time you become aware of a problem until you no longer have this problem, is the best measure of how agile your organization is.


To measure the success of your agile transition, you must be willing to name and face your problems. The best indicator of success is how you deal with your problems. By institutionalizing problem solving, you both establish a transition measurement system and take specific action.

Do not look for "feel good" indicators. Accept problems as your primary metric. 
You will feel good when you have less problems.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

3 Pitfalls to avoid as a Product Owner

The Product Owner is the "single wringable neck" in Scrum. This implies that a huge burden is resting on their shoulders. However, we learned from Lean Management that "single points of failure" are a bad idea. So - how can the PO prevent being the SPoF?

1 - Micromanagement

Some product owners - and even Scrum teams - feel that all decisions about the Product, including features, UI and UX must be made by the Product Owner.
( Let us ignore for a second the fact that this is turning developers into mindless drones, because Software development is exclusively about decision making - the "implementation" is the easy part, finding out how to do it best is the hard - and fun - part. )

This implies that the Product Owner must be available whenever a decision is being made.
Also, that the Product Owner would need to understand the intricacies of UI, UX, SEO, SMO etc. (which would make the PO quite a jack-of-all-trades) - it means that the PO is considering the Product on a very base level.
The Product Owner should be more concerned with strategic propositions of the Product - such as which customer segment to target, what value proposition to offer - and how to turn a more or less clearly understood market need into a feasible backlog item.

2 - Being a designer

Some go as far as having the PO explicitly define all Acceptance Criteria and spoonfeed them to the team. There are two problems in this:

  • This forces the Product Owner to spend a significant amount of time with intricate details of the "How" in implementation. 
  • The product design is biased around the Product Owner's understanding of technology.

Let us consider a Site Landing, for example: "As a customer, I want to register so that I can use subscription services".
The Product Owner proceeds to design the Wireframe including all form fields and buttons, defines the events and hands that to the team. But that is bad for the product. Why?

Because the solution was pre-empted: Point in case - customers DON'T want to fill in registration forms. (just consider yourself: When was the last time you enjoyed that process?) Customers want to use services. Registration is the standard way of making subscription services available. But there may be different ways of identifying subscribers, such as - referring to an existing Google / Facebook accounts, etc. - you might even want to use facial or fingerprint recognition. That's easier for the user and serves the same business purpose. And users don't end up with the umpteenth password to remember.

3 - Being a Scrum Master

While the Product Owner is responsible for the success of the product, they are not responsible for enabling the team to work un-impedited. Scrum clearly discriminates the Product Owner and Scrum Master roles, for multiple reasons.

One of these reasons is, of course, that the Product Owner wants maximum value in the shortest possible time - while the Scrum Master might have to shoo back the Product Owner on decisions affecting technology that might compromize sustainability of the Product. The most common decision (un-enlightened) Product Owners make is to cut short the testing in order to speed up delivery. In these cases, a Scrum Master must intervene.

If the Product Owner perceives the urge to go about educating others about Scrum and resolving team impediments, this means that the Scrum Master isn't doing their job. No accusation to the Scrum Master - maybe that's an organizational issue. But if the Product Owner does the job of the Scrum Master, then the team remains in dysfunction: Not only does the burden on the PO increase, the key impediment does not get resolved.
It is better for the Product Owner to step back, sit with the team and Scrum Master - and find a solution for this issue than for the PO to sprint into action.


Being a good Product Owner may - occasionally - imply doing something that is definitely outside the sphere of your core responsibility, i.e. envisioning and packaging a great product. However, if you see that you are spending a significant amount of time with stuff that should be done by others, ask yourself "What am I doing here?" - give it to the team, and refocus.

You will only succeed as a Product Owner if you do what a PO should do best - not when you do what others should be able to do better.

Friday, November 13, 2015

3 characteristics of outstanding Product Owners

The success of your product depends to a large extent on your Product Owner. If the PO directs the product in the right direction, your success chance will be maximized. If not ... your product may well fail.

How do you decide the future of your product?

Here are three characteristics of outstanding Product Owners:

1 - Obsessed with customers

Customers are not merely those who pay for what you produced. They will use the product - they know what annoys and what pleases them. They are not just consumers. They have opinions, ideas.

Every Product Owner must understand their customers, how they act, what they think, what they want.

Good Product Owners have a good understanding of who their customers are and how they use the Product - and what they will pay for.

Great Product Owners drive this to obsession, constantly looking for new and better ways to understand their customers better, to get closer to their customers.
They become the personification of "the customer" when discussing the next Product Increment - and they become the avatar of "the Product" in their interactions with the Customer.

Outstanding Product Owners are emotionally attached to the Customer and the Product. They feel joy when something is done well, but they also suffer when customers suffer, they feel pain when the product is inadequate - and they can't "not take it personal".

2 - Caring for numbers

Numbers are not everything, but numbers are important. You can't be a good Product Owner if you only groom and discuss user stories. You must correlate them to the needs of the customer and the business.

Every Product Owner must understand the Product Vision, communicate it clearly and base Releases, Epics, Stories and Features on this vision. They must always be able to draw lines forward and backward between these items and be ready to restrict everything that is not in line with the product vision.

Good Product Owners are not only able to map stories. They can relate them to business figures. They understand which Epic, story or feature delivers how much business value. They can clearly discriminate between "gold plating" and Minimum Viable Product. They will deliver the highest value first and cut discard items which do not have a good bottom line.

Great Product Owners will go one level beyond that: They do not only attach a business figure to features, they relate Performance Metrics, such as Clicks, Conversion Rate and hard cash earnings. They do not only predict which feature is most valuable - they build a product that lets them measure, so that they can inspect and adapt their product to maximize value and customer satisfaction.

Outstanding Product Owners transcend all of that - they have the data and are ready to produce accurate analysis at a fingertip. Additionally, they understand the large scale implications of a change: They do not focus only on the product, but on the ecosystem in which the product exists. This includes being aware of potential on short-term gains that might decrease future sustainability - for example the phenomenon called "Mudflation" in MMO's.

3 - Disregarding agendas

Of course, the Product Owner works in your organization. But the loyalty of the Product Owner lies with the Product, not with a specific portion of the organization. They own the product and the product directs them - not management!

Every Product Owner must be in charge of their product. If you're looking for someone to whom you can spoonfeed what to do when, you're not looking for a Product Owner - you're looking for a Project Manager. That's OK, but don't call it Scrum, don't claim to be Agile - and don't wonder why you're wasting lots of money on a failed product: It was a management decision.

Good Product Owners take ownership, just like the title of the role proclaims. This means that they will do what, based on their understanding, is the right thing to do. If management wants the Product Owner to do a certain thing with the product, they will provide clear information on why they want that - and must be willing to accept a "No". A good Product Owner will tell management if an idea is stupid.

Great Product Owners care more for the product than for themselves. They will do the right thing, even if it is a personal disadvantage. They can not be threatened or scared by backroom politics or titles. Neither will they be swayed by personal gain - you can not bribe them with pocket money or promotion. If a suggestion is bad for the product, it will be rejected. Likewise, just because a suggestion is good, it will find it's place in the Product Backlog based on product value, not on someone's title or rank.

Outstanding Product Owners are beyond your company. They choose to dedicate a portion of their life to the product - if you want something from them for a political reason, be prepared for rejection. If you have a suggestion that would destroy their product, be prepared for fire. If you want to gut the product for short term gain, you have to accept that they will make the product successful without you.


The decision making process of an outstanding Product Owner is driven by customers, numbers and value. You can't own an outstanding Product Owner - and they own the Product.

Before you hire a Product Owner, decide if you really want a Product Owner. Your choices are still to hire a Project Manager, an Analyst or a Requirements Engineer. None of these are Product Owners.

An outstanding Product Owner is not a person to whom you simply delegate work in the development process.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

3 things you won't get from me as a Product Owner

The Product Owner is the "single wringable neck" in Scrum. Their understanding of the product and the vision combined with their ability to decide determines success or failure of a product development team.

So, it's only fair that the Product Owner should be able to provide every information about what's going on? No.

Here are 3 things which you will not get from me when I'm a Product Owner.


If you are a team member, do not ask me to give you an assignment.

I don't assign stuff because I couldn't. I could. Easily. But I don't. Here is why:

Even before the Sprint, I determine what matters most to the Product. During Sprint Planning, we mutually agree on the team's priority. Your top priority is visible on the Scrum board. It's the topmost item that is not in the "DONE" column.

If you are uncertain which task to pick, you have team members to help you out. Again, during Sprint Planning, the team has agreed on the necessary work items required to get the Stories or Features properly done. I let you, as the team, break it down because you know your trade. And I expect that when you do that, you know what's most important and what is the next step from where you currently stand.

If you don't understand the context of something you work on, I'll gladly discuss with you. If you don't know if something is necessary in order to deliver the value, I'm also open. But I won't tell you what to do - or how to do it.

If you, as a team member, don't know what to do next, I see a serious impediment in team communication. That's something to discuss with the Scrum Master or cover in the next Retro. But the Product Owner is really the wrong person here.

Gantt Charts and Reports

If you are a manager, don't ask me for a Gantt Chart or a % progress report on your backlog items.

I don't produce these because I couldn't. I could. Easily. But I don't. Here is why:

I decide what gets done and when the team engages. I can't tell you when it's guaranteed to be done. You wouldn't want a trash product - you want quality.
Percent Progress Reports are a distraction. You already know from Windows Installer, "The last 1% may take longer than the first 99%". It takes as long as it takes.

I can tell you how big your chunk is and where it sits in my backlog. I can give you an estimate if we'll tackle it in the next sprint, within this quarter - or not.

If you're not satisfied with my answer, we can re-negotiate priority and scope, thereby getting your stuff through the door faster, but we can't negotiate quality or delivery date. Sorry.

Performance Appraisals

If you are Human Resources, don't ask me for individual performance appraisals of developers.

I don't give you an assessment because I couldn't. I could give you my opinion. Easily. But I don't. Here is why:

First, because it's just my opinion. It's tainted by how much I have interacted with that person. It does not reflect total contribution.

Second, is the team producing significant value or not?
If not, that's my problem. If they do, they are doing a good job and then that's your assessment.

Third, let me ask: Why do you even need individual appraisals? Is it "rationalization"?
Let me be witty here: You don't ask your dentist which of your teeth works best, so that you can pull those out that contribute least. You'll want to keep all of them, unless you want to reduce your diet to pulp and soup.

A team is a team. Teams have very complex mechanics. Teams work as teams. If they don't, ask the Scrum Master what they are doing. If they do, then each person has their part.

If you want any information about the team, ask the team. They know best.


As Product Owner, I will give you the most valuable product in the shortest possible time. I am not the Team Leader or a Project Manager, despite the fact that I have significant experience in those things.
We will never get anywhere as long as I act as if I were the brightest bulb in the lamp.
I trust the self-organization of highly competent individuals to do what is right.
If that is not happening, that's something to improve upon - not to undermine.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

No changes to the Sprint?

A very common question that is echoed by many Scrum teams: "What if we discover during the Sprint that a story will not help the user?"

The problem manifests in different facets, such as: A story was improperly groomed, new information became available which invalidated old information, a hypothesis about the product was disproved, etc.

Let's ignore for a minute the fact that "if we had known better, we would not have accepted this story into the sprint". We didn't and so we did. It's there. Now what?

The easy (and wrong) answer

Following the strict Scrum rules, the question is easy to answer: Continue the Sprint, deliver, use the Retro to elaborate what went wrong and do it better next time.

That's obviously wrong
We're not in business to "do Scrum". We're in business to deliver working, useful software. If we're not doing that, we're losing our reputation, credibility and - consequently, our customers - in turn: our jobs.

The correct answer

Common sense dictates the correct answer: Do what is right. Now, what is right? We deliver working, useful software.

Rather than referring to Scrum, we need to refer to the Agile Manifesto in answering this question:

Let's start with the often-ignored first sentence: "We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it." Is it "better" to build something useless? Obviously not. Being agile indicates that we're doing the best we can and from there, we look for even better ways. By simply doing what we're told, we neither do the first, nor the second.

Now, let's screen the Agile Values:

People and Interactions over Processes and Tools - you don't want to follow "the Scrum process" when a face-to-face communication can solve a problem that only exists because of a process.

Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation - when your "sprint contract" says to build and deliver X, yet X doesn't make sense to the customer/user, collaborate to find the Y which does.

Responding to Change over Following a Plan - when new information reveals that the Sprint Plan is no longer valid, respond to this change.

Scrum or Agile?

Scrum is an agile framework. The Agile Manifesto is the basis of Scrum. Without it, Scrum is a hollow, lifeless shell that will fail to deliver value. It would merely be a cargo cult, a "scrum-but" of the worst kind.
Scrum thrives by living the Agile Manifesto.

Refer back to the Agile Manifesto before clobbering someone with the Scrum Guide or Scrum Primer.


When you discover mid-sprint that your initial sprint plan (or, even a part thereof) does not make sense - grab your team, including the Product Owner and find a solution.
Never follow an invalid sprint plan: Change the plan, but do it in an agile fashion!