Product Owner or Backlog Administrator?

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In the official guides all Product Owners are equal. One size fits all.

In the world I live in some Product Owners are more equal than others and one size does not fit all.

The key variable here is the amount of Authority a Product Owner has. In my last post I said that Authority is one of the four things every product owner needs – the others being legitimacy, skills and time. However there is a class of Product Owner who largely lack authority and who I have taken to calling Backlog Administrators.

About the only thing a Backlog Administrator owns is their Jira login. They are at the beck and call of one or more people who tell them what should be in the backlog. Prioritisation is little more than an exercise in decibel management – he who shouts loudest gets what they want.

A Backlog Administrator rarely throws anything out of the backlog, they don’t feel they have the authority to do so. As a result their backlogs are constipated – lots of stories, many of little value. Fortunately Jira knows no limits, it is a bottomless pit – just don’t draw a CfD or Burn-Up chart!

If the team are lucky the Backlog Administrator can operate as a Tester, they can review work which is in progress or possibly “done.” They may be able to add acceptance criteria. If the team are unlucky the Backlog Administrator doesn’t know enough about the domain to do testing.

I would be the first to say that the Product Owner role can be vary a great deal: different individuals working with different teams in different domains for different types of company mean there that apart from backlog administration there is inherently a lot of variability in the role.

The Product Owner role should be capable of deciding what to build and/or change.

So Product Owners need to know what the most valuable thing to do is. Part of the job means finding out what is valuable. While Backlog Administration is part of the job the question one should ask is:

How does the Product Owner know what they need to know to do that?

Backlog Administrators are little more than gophers for more senior people.

True Product Owners take after full Product Managers and Senior Business Analysts – or a special version of Business Analysts sometimes called Business Partners.

Product Owners should be out meeting customers and observing users. They should be talking about technology options with the technical team and interface design options with UXD.

Product Owners should understand commercial pressures, how the product makes (or saves) money for the company. Product Owners are responsible for Product Strategy so they should both understand company strategy and input into company strategy. Product Strategy both supports company strategy and feeds into company strategy.

Product Owners may need to observe the competitor landscape and keep an eye on competitors and understand relevant technology trends. That probably means attending trade shows and even supporting sales people if asked.

Frequently Product Owners will require knowledge of the domain, i.e. the field in which your product is used. Sometimes – like in telecoms or surveying that may require actual hands on experience.

And apart from backlog administration there is a lot of work to do to deliver the things they want delivered: they need to work with the technical team to explain stories, to have the conversations behind the story, write acceptance criteria, attend planning meetings, perhaps help with interviewing new staff and sharing all the things they learn from meeting customers, analysing competitors, debating strategy, attending shows, etc. etc.

I sure there are many who would rush to call the Backlog Administrator an “anti-pattern” but since I don’t believe in anti-patterns I don’t. I just think Product Owners should be more than a Backlog Administrator.

Kanban paradox

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For a while now I’ve been seeing a paradox with Kanban. Specifically, Kanban compared to Scrum.

For a team new to Agile – although some regard this as heretical I place Kanban under the Agile umbrella, yes I know its more about Lean than Agile but of cause Agile is itself a Lean method, anyway…

For team, specifically a software team, looking to adopt a new process there is a choice:

  • Kanban has a very low barrier to entry, to get started Kanban essentially says “visualise your work and manage the result.” Starting Kanban can be as simple as putting up a board and tracking work items. In Kanban visualisation should drive improvement. Change can be incremental and gradual. Change is rooted in learning.
  • Scrum has a far higher barrier to entry: essentially Scrum says, “Adopt Sprints, designate a Product Owner, appoint a Scrum Master and build out a backlog.” Once these changes are done you can run with Scrum and then the Scrum Master and retrospectives will kick-in and drive further improvement.

Interestingly, neither method says explicitly “Improve your quality.” Yet I always believe a lot of the success of Agile methods is down to good old quality improvement: writing fewer bugs and having fewer bugs to fix means greater predictability and more time to deliver valuable software. But I digress.

It is easier to start with Kanban because it requires less up front change. However that does mean the improvements are slower coming.

Conversely, Scrum drops in, changes a lot and most teams see an immediate improvement. Scrum relies less on subsequent change.

Because Kanban relies more on ongoing change it is more difficult. It is easy to get stuck at the “we built a Kanban board so we are doing Kanban stage.” Change in Kanban requires one to see the need to change, understand what will fix a problem and then follow the change through. That often requires experience. Thus in teams adopting Kanban there is a greater need for a coach, a consultant, someone who has done it before.

Scrum on the other hand makes far more changes upfront and the recipe for improvement is more straight forward. And of cause there are a lot more books on Scrum, blogs on Scrum, Certified Scrum Masters and Scrum experience out there. So while it is harder to get started with Scrum (because more needs to change) there is less need for further change and you change does not require the same level of knowledge.

You see this specifically when you look at statistics. Watching the numbers should be important in both processes but with Kanban it is near essential. Anyone with real understanding of Kanban knows that queuing theory, lead times, possibly weighted lead times, and a bunch of other numbers need to be examined.

Scrum on the other hand doesn’t go much further than a burn-down chart. Yes, making more improvement with Scrum will also benefit from understanding lead times, queuing theory and the rest but you can quite happily use Scrum, and even improve Scrum, a fair bit without understanding these ideas.

So here is the paradox:

It is easier to start with Kanban than it is Scrum without expert knowledge, but it is harder to improve Kanban than Scrum without expert knowledge.

In many ways I prefer Kanban but I find this need for expert knowledge troubling. I suppose I shouldn’t, I’m a consultant, I am that expert, people hire me to help improve their Kanban processes so it does make more work for me.

In the longer run, the Kanban approach is more likely to lead to a genuine all inclusive culture of improvement and is less likely to get stuck in a sub-optimal position – yes Scrum fixes things, but is it the best fix possible?

Looked at like this gives me a new perspective on Xanpan.

I wanted Xanpan to be two things:

  • An understandable description of actually following an Agile process, specifically a Kanban/XP hybrid processes
  • An example of how, and why, teams should create their own processes.

The same paradox is here: Xanpan should be easy to start but allow you to improve; creating your own process requires a bit more knowledge that only really comes with experience.

To step back a minute and ask another question: What amount of change can a team handle to start with?

I find that I advocate more initial change than I used to. Because I’m fearful of creating a learned dependency I really want teams to learn to change and improve themselves. But… once a team has decided to change I want to seize the opportunity and install a bunch of changes while enthusiasm is there.

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