Six signs of a successful Scrum Team: The Product Owner primer

By Nick Butler in Agile on April 04, 2018

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This is the second in our Scrum primer for Product Owners series. It shows what you can do as a Product Owner to build a successful Scrum Team. Find out how you can deliver maximum value and make the biggest impact.

It follows ‘What is Scrum?’, our introductory post looking at Scrum roles, rules and tools, how Scrum was developed and, more importantly why it was set up that way. Understanding why helps you understand how to use Scrum.


Make a bigger impact by mastering the Product Owner role in Scrum.
Boost’s Guide to being a Kickass Product Owner collects our Product Owner Primer posts into one handy, expanded and revised PDF.

Request your copy of the Scrum Product Owner guide


The six drivers of successful Scrum Teams that we’re looking at are:

  1. working closely together
  2. leveraging Scrum roles and processes
  3. avoiding “scrumishness”
  4. valuing the Scrum Values
  5. applying the three pillars of Scrum
  6. delivering value.

1. A Successful Scrum Team works closely together

It might sound obvious but it’s worth teasing out, especially for Product Owners working for the first time with a vendor who is using Scrum.

Scrum embeds the customer in the Scrum Team, in the form of the Product Owner.

Colocation is the best way to work together

Ideally the whole Scrum Team sits together. That’s because face-to-face communication works best. If you can’t sit together all the time, then do it often.

Boost’s Rebecca Jones has been both Scrum Master and Product Owner.

“You want to spend as much time in person as possible. It gets the work going a lot quicker,” she says. “It also means that you just feel more like a team.”

Although the Scrum Guide says the Daily Scrum is just for the Development Team, at Boost we encourage Product Owners to come along each day. Our clients appreciate the insight this gives them.

“It’s good to be there with the doers and hear the thinking about what can be achieved and what can’t,” says John O’Connell, CEO of the Life Education Trust.

When colocation is not possible, video conferencing gets you face-to-face, if not in the same space.

Getting the team together through video conferencing

At Boost, we use whatever video conferencing (VC) tool is easiest for our clients. Internally we prefer Zoom — we find it’s more robust than Skype or Google Hangouts. We also sometimes use Slack and if clients have a locked-down network and can’t download apps, we go for web-based tools like appear.in.

Tips for video conferencing

Get to know your team

“The most successful teams I’ve seen have gone out for a beer together, gone for a lunch,” Rebecca Jones says. “You learn a bit about the people. I think that creating empathy is really important on both sides.”

Keep the team together

It takes teams a while to get to know each other. You can make best use of this time investment by not moving people in and out of the team too often.

2. A Successful Scrum Team leverages the benefits of Scrum

A successful Scrum Team makes best use of the benefits built into the Scrum Roles, Events and Artifacts. In future posts we’ll look in more detail at how to get the most out of your Scrum Events and and Artifacts. Here we’ll focus on the Roles.

Rocking the Scrum Team roles

The responsibilities of the Scrum Team can be divided up like this:

So let’s look at your role as Product Owner, and how you can best work with the other roles.

Product Owner working with the Scrum Master and members of the Development Team.

Your work as Product Owner

According to the Scrum Guide, the Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product. To do this you need a clear vision of how the product will help your customers and achieve the strategic goals of your organisation. You can use this vision to inspire the team by depicting the better future you’ll be building. Your vision describes the outcomes or impacts, not features. You show the team ‘why’ you’re building the product, they show you ‘how’ to build it.

This process starts before your first Sprint. Our Agile Project Kick-off Kit explains how you can get the team behind your vision and move from the ‘why’ to doing the work itself in the space of a day.

This picture of the way you’re making the world a better place becomes both a motivational and a decision-making tool.

When questions come up as the project progresses, you and the team can return to the vision. Ask yourselves, ‘will it get us closer to the outcome we’re after?’.

For ongoing projects or value streams, it’s worth having a focus or theme for significant chunks of work.

“What we really like from our Product Owners is that glimpse of where we want to be in six months, so we can all get there together,” Rebecca says.

A key way the Product Owner helps turn the vision into the product itself is by maintaining the Backlog so that it’s prioritised and the work to be picked up next is well understood. We’ll look in detail at how you maintain the Backlog in a later post.

Keep in mind that, as Product Owner, you can get the Scrum Master and developers to help with any of your responsibilities, if this is a cost-effective use of their time. However the buck stops with you.

Working with the Scrum Master

The Scrum Master is your first port of call for questions about Scrum best practice. This is especially important when you’re new to Scrum.

“With a new Product Owner, the Scrum Master and the Product Owner work closely together to make sure the Product Owner understands their role and the other roles,” says Rebecca.

Make sure the Scrum Master understands the vision. That way they can help you communicate it to the rest of the team.

Seeing how the Scrum Guide describes the support the Scrum Master can provide the Product Owner gives you an idea how much the two can work together. This ranges from, but is not limited to, helping ensure the team understand the product, through Backlog management, to facilitating events.

Working with the Development Team

To find out how Product Owners can best work with the Development Team I quizzed the crew at Boost. What I found could be summed up in one sentence.

“Developers work most effectively when a Product Owner knows the product well, and communicates this knowledge responsively and decisively.”

To learn what that means in practice, take a look at our Product Owner’s guide to working with developers.

By the way, if you’re using Agile for non-software projects, just think of ‘developers’ as the experts who turn your vision into reality. The same principles will apply.

3. A successful Scrum Team is not “scrumish”

Scrumish is a technical term we just invented. It means not following part of the Scrum framework because it’s causing problems, but doing so without solving these underlying problems.

It’s fine to adapt Scrum to suit, but if you do this by sweeping problems under the carpet you’ll tend to trip yourself up.

For example, if you find the Development Team has only one expert in a particular type of work, as Product Owner you might start assigning them this work. Yes, this would mean the work’s done well, but it also means the team is less cross-functional and is no longer self-organising. In turn, this can mean motivation and capability fall. It’d be better to help the team come up with a solution like peer coaching that solves your problem without scrumishness.

Traditional project management roles and Scrum

Another sign of scrumishness is hanging onto the roles and responsibilities of traditional project management.

There’s plenty of room in Scrum for Project Managers and Business Analysts, but those roles don’t exist (just as the Development Team doesn’t have roles like designers or testers). The same work is done, but there’s no one-to-one match between traditional project management roles and Scrum roles.

Say you’re a Business Analyst working as a Product Owner and when you worked as a BA, a manager set your priorities. But deciding priorities is a key part of the Product Owner role. If your manager still makes these decisions you add an extra step and risk turning your Sprints into Crawls.

To learn more, read about Project Managers and Scrum and Business Analysts and Scrum, and how to workshop the transition between roles.

4. A successful Scrum Team values the Scrum Values

The Scrum Values are ways people interact: with commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect. In a successful Scrum Team, people interact in ways that make the team most productive.

Here’s how Scrum.org sums up the Values:

A Scrum Team discussing the work ahead.

Scrum Values and the Product Owner

If you don’t think the team or individuals are demonstrating the values, you can always raise this with your Scrum Master or at a Retrospective.

Demonstrating the Values yourself means the team is likely to follow suit. Here’s how a Product Owner can live up to the Values.

Commitment

You can both show commitment and inspire it in the team, and the two feed into each other.

Keeping the backlog shipshape demonstrates commitment which the team pick up on.

“When people know exactly what they need to do, it’s full steam ahead,” Rebecca says. “As soon as the backlog starts to lag, then the motivation can start to lag as well.”

On top of that, if you’re enthusiastic about the work, and present a compelling vision, you give the team a strong drive to deliver. A passionate Product Owner is a powerful motivator.

Courage

Your team will often come under external pressure, especially if Scrum is new or not well-understood across the organisation. Senior managers push for pet features mid-Sprint. Other teams try to poach your people. Marketers nag you to move up release dates. The Product Owner needs the courage to stick up for the work and the team and the Scrum process. Your Scrum Master will be a key ally in this.

Learn more about the crucial work Product Owners do with people outside the Scrum.

You’ll also need to stick up for the customers when working with developers. Experts such as developers often subconsciously assume that others are as technically clued up as they are, which ain’t necessarily so. This is where your in-depth knowledge of your personas, and the way they’ll use your product, is vital.

Focus

As mentioned earlier, the Product Owner focuses on the work of the Scrum by being available and responsive.

You’ll also want to make sure your Development Team are working full-time on the Scrum. If they have to do other work they’ll be less productive. That’s because it takes time for our brain to switch tasks. If people outside the Scrum are giving other work to the team, you or the Scrum Master should step in.

Openness

Openness is especially important when it comes time to inspect and adapt. Product Owners should be open when giving and getting feedback.

And if you take some time to make your feedback specific and actionable your developers will be able to implement it faster. And the sooner you can provide feedback the easier it will be to implement.

A committed Development Team will also always be looking for the best way to do things.

“If the team has a new way of doing something or they’ve had some new ideas, you want to be open to thinking about other solutions,” says Rebecca.

Respect

As well as treating your team mates with respect, respect their expertise. Scrum is based on the idea of the right people making the right decisions. This means that the Development Team decides:

Of course, if you don’t understand why a decision has been made, you absolutely should ask. Agile is all about the conversation.

5. A successful Scrum Team stands atop the pillars

The three pillars of Scrum are transparency, inspection and adaptation. Together these make it easier for the right decisions to be made at the right time.

“The best part about Agile is that day-to-day knowledge of what is happening,” says Jess Limbrick, Product Owner for the Life Education Trust. “Being included throughout the entire process gives you the ability to respond to change really, really quickly,” she says.

This agility delivers results. Life Education are keeping Kiwi kids healthy and growing a stronger New Zealand thanks to a new digital tool that drove a major change in the way they work.

Transparency

Transparency means the work is clear and visible. It’s clear because you build a shared understanding of what’s involved. This might be through team-forming activities such as creating a Team Charter, or Scrum processes like Sprint Planning, Refinement or agreeing on your Definition of Done. And it’s visible because the Artifacts make it so.

Transparency helps build trust. “Without trust,” Rebecca says, “you’re not going to be a high-performing Scrum Team.”

As Product Owner, you’re responsible for the Product Backlog, so you’ll want to make sure the team can access it at any time.

You’ll also be able to make use of the other tools that make the work visible.

At Boost we aim for maximum overview for minimum overhead (in line with the Agile principle of simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done). In practice this often boils down to a visible, physical Scrum board, and the digital equivalent in which we also track Velocity.

“The tools are there for the team. They’re a good gauge for the Product Owner, but they shouldn’t be used against the team which I think sometimes a lot of tools are,” says Rebecca. “For example, Velocity helps teams know how much they should commit to. It’s also helpful for the Product Owner to know how much work needs to be ready for the team to pick up.”

Inspection and adaptation

Regularly checking in on your product and process enables the iterative improvement at the heart of Scrum, and a successful Scrum Team.

Effective Product Owners take advantage of these look and learn loops. They are engaged at Retrospectives. They prepare for the Review so they can learn as much as possible from that Increment of the Product, ideally getting stakeholders along to give their feedback.

6. A successful Scrum Team delivers value

A practical way for the Product Owner to ensure the team delivers maximum value is by delivering working solutions at the end of each Sprint. You want the Increment at the end of the Sprint to be releasable, even if you choose not to release it.

A developer shows the Product Owner and Scrum Master one of the features in the latest Increment.

In order to do this, make sure your Definition of Done will produce a releasable solution. For software this might include code review, testing, integration and documentation. For a non-software project like a marketing brochure it might cover things like proofreading, sign-off and a print-ready PDF.

If you don’t release you still get value from what you can learn from, for example, beta testing. If you do release, you deliver value to your customers and you gain value from what you learn about their use of your product in the wild.

Thus, with each Sprint, you take a step closer to achieving your vision, helping you make a bigger impact and a better world.

The Product Owner Primer

  1. What is Scrum?
  2. Six signs of a successful Scrum Team
  3. Making multiple Product Owners work in Scrum: A case study
  4. Working with stakeholders in Scrum
  5. Product discovery for Scrum Product Owners
  6. User stories in Scrum

Make a bigger impact by mastering the Product Owner role in Scrum.
Boost’s Guide to being a Kickass Product Owner collects our Product Owner Primer posts into one handy, expanded and revised PDF.

Request your copy of the Scrum Product Owner guide


Agile training

In New Zealand and keen to get to grips with Scrum and the Agile mindset? Check out our Agile training:

Agile Professional Foundation certification, Wellington, NZ – two-day ICAgile course

Introduction to Agile methodology, Wellington, NZ – free two-hour workshop

Agile Accelerator team assessment – Agile review and action plan

Learn more

The Scrum Guide  — the official Scrum manual

Introduction to Scrum in 10 Minutes — Scrum in 10 minutes video, Scrum terms summarised, tips and resources

Agile Product Ownership in a nutshell —  a short and sharp 15 minute video summary