Your product owner has pushed to include a user story in the upcoming sprint, but the design is not yet finalised. How do you react?
Welcome to part 6 in our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters and agile coaches in interviews.
In this scenario, we are talking about the look and feel of the item rather than deep elements of product design. So, how do you as a scrum master respond?
You embrace it. In the agile manifesto, one of the agile principles is to ‘welcome changes in the product development process, even late in development’.
It’s a need that the product owner has.
You can have the conversation about whether it is the single most important need in the backlog, but it isn’t as important as the fact that this is a legitimate need and request from the product owner, maybe even on behalf of the actual customer or product stakeholders.
It needs to be taken seriously and it deserves to be included in the sprint backlog.
When the team work on the sprint planning and the product owner makes this kind of request, the only answer is yes.
The team can have the conversation with the product owner about competing priorities and seek guidance on what items could be removed from the sprint backlog to accommodate the request.
You may find that the product owner decides not to include the item because all the current sprint backlog items are more important than the request they have, or you may find that they are quite happy to remove X item from the sprint backlog to accommodate the new request.
Either way, it’s easy to facilitate and doesn’t create a train smash for the team.
Understanding the cost
As a scrum master, you will want to work with the product owner to identify and articulate what the cost of their request will be.
Product owners have demanding jobs, and sometimes that request may come through as an instruction from a product stakeholder, senior leader, or a person of authority within the organization.
Taking time to identify what fulfilling the request will cost, in terms of time, money, or losses that will be incurred in other departments will help the product owner frame the request correctly.
They may realize that the cost of fulfilling the request is far greater than the benefits associated with fulfilling the request and make a different call. They may simply acknowledge the cost and communicate that cost to stakeholders and customers with a justification that helps manage expectations.
Either way, it’s a worthwhile conversation to have and may lead to less interventions in the future because your product owner has a greater understanding of how last-minute changes can impact the team.
The context of the request
I have worked with great designers in the past, and I know them to be consummate professionals that deeply understand the agile world.
They are the experts in their field and if they have made a judgement call that the item can proceed into development despite the design elements not being finalised yet, that’s great. We don’t need to second guess them or fight for the item to be 100% complete before bringing it into the sprint.
For me, the most important thing for the team to be invested in is building the most important thing for the customer. If this request aligns with that philosophy, I don’t think you need to make a fuss.
You will be amazed at how little design a customer need to make a judgement call on whether the product being built meets their requirements or helps them solve a compelling problem.
In this scenario, we are focused on delivering the most valuable item to the customer and allowing the final touches to be applied after we receive feedback from the customer or stakeholders.
That is a good thing. That is something we should embrace rather than reject.
The design elements may not be the most important element of the item being created and so it just needs to be good enough, for now, to get the job done and we can always add the design upgrade or design elements to the backlog for future attention and work.
Why are designers working ahead of product development?
A useful question to ask is why the designers are working ahead of the product development team.
In some scenarios, designers love the idea of something being beautiful and aligned with the design elements of what they think will illicit the best response from customers. Great work if you can get it but not always a practical stance, especially with product development.
- What if the product development team can’t build the product to that specification?
- What if it needs specific features that weren’t included in the original design?
- What if customers don’t like the look and feel of the item and the design team have delayed development for months trying to perfect something that matters very little to customers?
You often find that designers are focused on one element of the product, the design, whilst product owners and stakeholders are focused on the big picture.
Designers should be working in collaboration with the product development team, the product owner, and customers. If it’s a process of co-creation, you’re likely to have the best outcome of them all.
A product that customers adore, that developers can build incredibly well, and within the time and budget constraints that empower the organization to profit from the development of the product.
There’s nothing wrong with taking an iterative approach to the design and development of that product and empowering customers to provide feedback that informs the design and functionality of that product.
In fact, as a scrum master, it is useful to facilitate these conversations and help that process of co-creation become a reality.
There is a significant benefit to getting a product working and then improving it with each iteration.
Remember, if you design a thing and then build it and then test it at the end, you’re basically doing waterfall-style project management and product development. You aren’t going to know if it has any value or appeal until months or years into development.
Agile is the antithesis of this.
We are looking to make small bets, reinforced with regular and valuable feedback from customers, to ensure that we are always building the most valuable things at the most valuable time.
Allowing products into development before design is finalized is a great way to ensure that you are aligning customer value with product development process.
As a scrum master, I would be advocating for the designers to be included in the scrum team, as part of the product development cross-functional skills capability, to ensure that we are all aligned toward customer value and product viability/feasibility.
I have extensive experience with exactly this kind of integration, and I can tell you that there is amazing benefits to working with designers that collaborate with the product development team.
So, in my experience as a scrum master, you would respond positively to this request and look for opportunities to increase agility through cocreation, collaboration, and iteration-driven design and development.
About John McFadyen
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