How do you help pick good user stories for the scrum team to include in sprint planning?
Welcome to part 11 of our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions posed to scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
A scrum master doesn’t pick user stories, nor do they tell the developers what needs doing.
Your role is to help the team understand scrum and how to work within the rules of the game. You are present to help create an environment where the team can excel, and work with stakeholders and other people outside of the scrum team to remove impediments or shape actions that will help the scrum team improve.
The developers are the experts, and they are best placed to decide what should be done and how it should be done. They work in conjunction with the product owner to determine the priority of items in the backlog and to ensure that they have a deep understanding of what needs doing and why that matters to customers.
The scrum master is trying to help the team embody the agile values and principles, as articulated in the agile manifesto, with the objective of helping the team create an environment that supports the creation and capture of value that truly delights customers.
They will also help facilitate great scrum events, such as sprint planning and sprint retrospectives, but ultimately it isn’t their job to deliver a product or feature. They support the people who do.
Who is responsible for choosing backlog items?
The people who are responsible for the delivery of the work are the people who choose the items.
In a scrum team, a product owner works with customers and product stakeholders to identify the most compelling problems that need to be solved, and the most valuable work that needs to be performed.
The product owner will also work with customers and stakeholders to identify the priority of work and establish which delivery schedule best serves customer and organizational objectives.
The developers work closely with the product owner, and ideally customers too, to establish which backlog items are ready to be included in the sprint backlog and which items need to be further refined before the team can address that work.
An item may have a high priority but include dependencies that are outside of the influence and control of the scrum team. So, although it is high priority, it remains on the backlog until those dependencies have been resolved or the item is made ready for production.
The developers may need more information from the product owner, or customer, or product stakeholders before commencing with a backlog item and so they will schedule the necessary time for that to happen and do what is necessary to make the item ready for inclusion in the sprint.
Ultimately, if they understand the problem well and know how to solve the problem or build the feature, it all runs relatively smoothly. If they don’t, they simply refine the item until it is ready to be included in the sprint.
This is known as backlog refinement, and it’s something that the scrum master can help facilitate but it isn’t in their purview to solve the problem or decide about the readiness of the item.
That is on the developers and product owner.
Where can a scrum master add value?
A great scrum master might challenge assumptions to help the team clarify what they are going to attempt, why, and whether that is the best investment of their time.
If your goal is continuous improvement, you might ask the team why they have selected the items they have and explore the lines of reasoning behind that selection to understand whether there are great processes and decision-making criteria that support the team.
If you notice that the team are frequently unable to deliver what they committed in the sprint planning, you might want to work on understanding processes, systems, and selection criteria in the sprint retrospective.
You may suggest alternative decision-making criteria, or you may invite the team to explore different options that can help them consistently deliver against their sprint goals and objectives.
You may find that a product stakeholder is having an undue and unhelpful influence in deciding what gets included in the sprint backlog, and as such, the team are being impeded in their ability to deliver great work.
Great, that gives you an opportunity to talk to that stakeholder and explain the value of the agile approach, why things work as they do, and outline the kind of outcomes they could anticipate if they allow the team to operate in alignment with great scrum practices, processes, and decision-making.
Your role is to observe the trends and use cues to question whether the team are operating as effectively as they could be, identify problems that are yielding poor performance, and redirect the teams’ focus to solving the issues that are impeding progress.
There are a significant number of ways in which a scrum master can add value in helping the team select backlog items and excel through continuous delivery, but actively picking those backlog items on behalf of the team is not how you contribute value to the scrum team.
About John McFadyen
For more information on John McFadyen, connect with John on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnmcfadyen/.
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