A program manager asked me how one makes sure that all necessary information from different stakeholders is considered in a Scrum initiative. How can it be made sure that nothing gets forgotten? Usually, the answer to this question is: the team has to care for all the information. Another solution would be: everybody needs to be part of the team. However, these solutions look great on paper but they are not feasible in organisations which want to start using an agile approach. Well, at least in the beginning.
We have to differentiate between strategical and tactical processes of product development. In other words, you have to consider the long term view (strategical) and short term view (tactical). Any organisation needs to plan and execute both processes simultaneously. But both aspects need different good practices to support success.
I suggest to free the Product Owner from working on tactical issues as much as possible. So we do not want him/her to spend time on e.g. writing user stories or talking to end users to come up with ideas for features. At borisgloger consulting we believe his/her capabilities should be strengthened in order to work on the strategic level. On one hand that means he/she shall have the authority to work strategically more often and on the other hand it means he/she shall dedicate his/her time to the practices that one needs for performing on this level:
- Creating a product vision based on the product idea he/she might have gotten from the customer
- Building a list of constraints
- Working with the development team to enable its members to build the product backlog.
Most people in the Scrum community know how to build a product vision or a product backlog but what is a list of constraints? What is its purpose and where does it come from?
List of Constraints
The list of constraints contains the needs of the stakeholders. The Product Owner is responsible for facilitating a conversation amongst all stakeholders. In this conversation they are supposed to talk about their specific needs (see picture above). I use the word “needs” instead of “interests” because I want to distinguish strategic needs from tactical features. For instance, if someone in an organisation is responsible for making sure that a product meets the regulatory requirements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he has the need that these requirements are acknowledged. So it is the job of the Product Owner to translate this need into strategical constraints. This practice ensures that the regulatory requirements are not treated as a low priority feature.
Together with all stakeholders, the Product Owner creates the list of constraints at the beginning of a Scrum initiative (product, service). However, it is not a static but a rather dynamic list. It is the job of the Product Owner to stabilise this list over time. To do this, he creates a reflexive process that continuously reviews the validity of constraints. He also updates the list if necessary. Please notice that he has to communicate all updates to all stakeholders. He also has to ensure that all resulting changes are incorporated into the product or service.
For understanding Scrum as a model, reducing the list of stakeholders to a set of roles is useful. However, a model masks the fact that a Product Owner needs to take the needs of all stakeholders into account. So, who is a stakeholder of a Scrum initiative? Which players are part of a project or department? Who is influenced by it? Who wants to influence the outcome of the project, even if they do not have a role within the project? And, most important, what are their interests and motives? Analysing who will be relevant stakeholders is essential for being successful with your projects. Again, the list of stakeholders must be reviewed and monitored throughout the delivery cycles. So the list I present here is not a comprehensive one but may rather be seen as a starting point for you:
- Customer (internal, external): Who is the customer? Who ist the real decision maker? What is his/her need?
- People in the development team: What does every individual in the team want to achieve for his- or herself? Maybe your team consists of parents of very young children. What do they need to be effective team members?
- Other departments/projects: What are the needs of these projects or departments? Means: Which interests does the management of these initiatives have? For example:
a. HR department
b. the work council
- End user: Who is the end user? Which needs do they have, besides ideas for new features?
- Management: Which interests does the management or the management of sister departments have? Are there any political aspects we have to bear in mind in this project?
- Suppliers (other teams, external companies): Do our suppliers have specific needs that our project/service needs to meet
- Governments/Regulators: Is there a player that we need to take into consideration? What do we need to know about them?
In our company we follow a very strict principle: “Community building first, decision making second.” It means more or less: bring the respective people together and do so on a regular basis. What’s the idea behind this? We want to create a mutual relationship to build trust. Because we believe trust is based on knowing each other. So it is paramount that the Product Owner talks with all people using round table discussions. The purpose of this conversation is to recognise all needs and build trust.
We use a format called the Circle Way to facilitate these meetings successfully . By doing this on a regular basis you will be able to create a „community” that cares for your product or service. As an additional benefit, it creates a clear and concise picture of the environment a Scrum initiative is working in and for.
The tactical work for your Scrum initiative is done by the cross-functional, multi-disciplinary product/service (development) team (in short: the team). In its role as a stakeholder the team works with the Product Owner on creating, understanding and updating the list of constraints. Team and Product Owner share their vision and they work together on the roadmap. However, the team works with the end user on ideas for features and creates the according user stories, implements the user stories into the application, runs the sprints and so on. The Product Owner works with the team on the tactical level to enable and facilitate decisions but he/she shall not heavily influence tactical decisions of the team.
Using this refined understanding of the role of the Product Owner, the usage of constraints and the way stakeholder can influence the Scrum initiative on a regular basis will enable Scrum-teams to become more productive because it channels information to the right people and gives them authority.
 If you are interested to know more about the Circle Way please have a look into this little 2-page document. It will tell you how to run a meeting using this process.