How would you help the team identify and select the most valuable backlog items for the upcoming sprint?
Welcome to part 15 in our scrum master interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of scrum masters in interviews and client engagements.
As an interview question, this is an interesting one. I’m going to assume that when they refer to the team, they mean the whole scrum team, which includes the product owner.
The style of this question hints at an interviewer that may assume that a scrum master acts like a project manager, in that they identify work that needs doing and assign that work to other people.
To be clear, that isn’t the role of a scrum master.
They don’t assign work, they don’t choose what work needs to be done next, nor do they set deadlines or targets for when that work should be completed.
Those are things that a project manager does, but Agile and Scrum work very differently.
The scrum team members, namely the product owner and the developers, are best suited to make decisions about the work, its priority, and how best to get that work done.
The developers, the people who do the work, are the experts in their field and decision-making around how to do the work, who should do the work, and estimates around how much effort will be required to do the work are predominantly made by them.
So, it is worth explaining to your interviewer that an agile team don’t work in the same fashion as a project management team, and a scrum master doesn’t mirror a project manager.
Help the product owner
What we need to do is help the product owner get clear on what matters most about the product.
This is often articulated as a product vision and serves to inspire the developers to aim high when creating products, features, or solutions for customers. In the latest scrum guide, this is referred to as a product goal.
The reason why we are building the product or feature, and how that serves the customer.
This conversation will naturally lead to what is important, in the backlog, and why it is important to the organization, the scrum team, and the customer.
- What are the product drivers?
- What are the business drivers?
- What is most valuable, in terms of the product, right now?
- Why do customers care about this product or feature?
- In what priority should we be working through the backlog?
- What is our primary focus and objective(s)?
- Where are we going next?
And so forth.
This kind of conversation helps prioritize the work.
It helps the product owner achieve clarity around which backlog items are going to have the most impact on customer satisfaction and help move the needle on organizational metrics that matter.
As a scrum master, you are part teacher, part coach, and part agile mentor.
You’re not enforcing your own opinion nor are you leading these decisions. You are facilitating a conversation, and coaching the product owner, to think clearly about the work that needs doing, why it needs doing, and how that is relevant to organizational and customer objectives.
Document the outcomes and decisions
Often, I’ll get this information down in a spreadsheet.
- List all the items that we could work on.
- Identify the metrics that matter for each item, for example, Net Promoter Score (NPS).
- Score each item against the 3 or 4 important metrics you have identified.
- Note: Use relative estimation for items that are hard to score, such as ‘customer satisfaction’ or ‘customer urgency’. A Fibonacci sequence can work well with this.
- Tally up how each item has scored and weigh that relative to other items.
- Prioritize the order based on how your spreadsheet orders the items.
- Note: Document the line of reasoning behind each item, especially if items have the same score based on your criteria, and further refine based on solid arguments.
This is a tool. It isn’t something carved in stone, it is simply something that the product owner can review and inform their decision-making moving forward.
Example of application
If the product owner is primarily focused or responsible for increasing customer satisfaction, the spreadsheet allows them to filter backlog items by levers that drive customer satisfaction and rank those items in terms of priority.
You may have items that have the same overall score, for example, but one item may have a stronger impact on customer satisfaction and therefore, prove itself to be a higher priority – in terms of business drivers – than the other item(s) on the backlog.
If velocity is the primary organizational driver, the spreadsheet will allow the product owner to make decisions based on how much velocity can be increased through choosing the items that have strong velocity levers attached to them.
The product owner is now empowered to order the backlog items relevant to the business or customer objectives that are the primary focus for that week, month, or quarter.
This is how a scrum master can work with the product owner to identify powerful backlog items to focus on over the short-term, medium-term, and long-term.
Stress the importance of communication
I would then work with the product owner to understand the importance of frequent, continuous, and ongoing communication with the developers.
I would help them articulate:
- The order of priority on the backlog items.
- Why the backlog items have been prioritized in the way they have.
- The backlog items in the context of the product goal
- The backlog items in the context of the business goals
- The backlog items in the context of the customer objectives
- The backlog items in the context of the customer need or requirement.
And so forth.
Work on a communication strategy that empowers the people who make the product or solve the problem to understand it’s relevance from multiple angles. Empower the team to understand how that specific item, at the granular level, solves a customer problem or helps them achieve a goal.
I’ll also work with the product owner to create a two-way communication stream.
Whilst the customer and business objectives are important, there may be technical difficulties or problems that prevent the team from tackling the backlog items in that specific order.
The team need the psychological safety, willingness to listen and learn, and the ability to adapt from the product owner to do a great job. To really help the product owner understand what is doable, what still needs to happen before something can be done, and what impediments or problems need to be resolved for the team to thrive.
It’s about building a strong, working relationship between the developers and the product owner.
I think this would be a great answer for an interview question.
Simply highlight the work you would do with the product owner, with the developers, and finally the product stakeholders and customers.
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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