How a Scrum Team Works
In this chapter, you meet the case study team, a Scrum Team working on management software for medical offices. The team is in the middle of its twelfth Sprint and already has some experience working with Scrum.
The Product Owner and Development Team collaborate as self-organized entities inside the Scrum Team, using the Product and Sprint Backlogs to plan and organize their work. Collaboration creates the transparency needed for continuously improving their way of working and their work results. The purpose of this chapter is to show you a team that is working well together so that you know what effective teamwork looks like in Scrum. It provides you with a baseline for how Scrum is supposed to work before we explore the challenges and describe situations that may feel more familiar to you.
This interaction between the Development Team and Product Owner demonstrates how a Scrum Team is supposed to work: They work in Sprints toward their common goal. Their short-term driver is the Sprint Goal that they create together at the Sprint Planning of every Sprint. The team members collaborate among themselves but also work closely with their stakeholders. They all take on their responsibility and try to improve the overall situation, regardless of their job title.
The rest of the chapter takes a closer look at this collaboration.
Collaboration Between Product Owner and Development Team
Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional.
This quote describes the essence of being a Scrum Team.
Self-organization is the natural way that nearly everything works, but many people have lost touch with this way of working. Nature comprises individual self-organizing entities that form larger self-organizing entities. Scaling a complex environment, such as a school of fish, a forest, or our worldwide flora and fauna, is only possible by self-organizing.
Consider self-organization on a smaller scale. A self-organizing team can react to changes in its environment, such as changes in the goals they want to achieve, the work they are trying to do, or how they work together. Our customers often ask us how a Scrum Team should act in a given situation. How should the Development Team act in a Sprint Review? Should the Scrum Master interfere in a specific situation, and if so, how? Is the Product Owner part of the Daily Scrum, and if so, how? We usually answer that the team self-organizes around “that”—where that can be almost anything from what tools to use to how to describe a backlog item. The reason we recommend self-organizing is that the people doing the work are the most competent and capable to make decisions that affect the work.
Self-organization will happen only when there is no predefined solution to a problem. Consider the preceding example: Is the Product Owner part of the Daily Scrum? What would be the benefit? What might be an issue? If you could choose, what would you do, and why? By answering these questions, a team can find its own solution—it self-organizes.
The second, but equally important, attribute of a Scrum Team after self-organization is cross-functionality. A cross-functional team has all the competencies and skills to deliver a valuable working product Increment. The team members collaborate to use their different areas of expertise to the best effect. In highly specialized working environments, deep skills and knowledge in one area are important; however, one person alone typically cannot create meaningful and valuable results for customers. Our customers, business domain, and technology become ever more complicated—even complex—and we have to understand them as well as we can in order to make the best decisions possible. Therefore, integrating work done by different experts and making it valuable to customers is key to being successful. This integration and tight collaboration is enabled by a cross-functional team.
The litmus test of whether a Scrum Team is truly cross-functional is its ability to deliver a valuable working product Increment every Sprint. If the team cannot do that, it might need to find people with the missing skills or increase the skills and knowledge in the existing team members.
Together, those two attributes are the killer feature of a Scrum Team. Self-organization without cross-functionality could lead to local optimization without the big picture in mind. Cross-functionality without self-organization could lead to a powerful team that is unable to react to influences from the outside world. To be honest, though, the latter is hard to imagine, as a truly cross-functional team usually needs a certain amount of self-organization in order to become cross-functional.
Don’t Separate Business and IT
In many of the companies we work with, we see a game of business versus IT.
Business wants to fulfill the needs of its customers. It has some ideas on what those needs are and how to satisfy them. Since business wants to provide maximum value to its customers, it would like IT to deliver faster.
IT needs to provide functional and stable infrastructure and systems. Its goal is to ensure long-term consistency and reliability. Therefore, IT needs to make sure that changes to the system can be made without side effects that threaten this long-term goal.
Everybody sees their part of the overall picture, but they do not see others’ parts. The result is silo thinking and an us-versus-them mentality.
This scenario ties back to the importance of cross-functionality and being a true team. Organizations that cannot create this team mindset are likely to face negative consequences. Putting our own family or tribe first has been beneficial in the past. It was a way to create a common culture and strong social bonds among the individuals, bonds we did not feel for the “outsiders.” Yet even in a multinational company with several thousand employees, we have to work toward common goals, and we have to collaborate. This is possible only if we identify with the people we work with and for. In Scrum, these are our Scrum Team members, our internal and external stakeholders, and our customers. An us-versus-them mentality leads to boundaries and barriers and prevents collaboration and empathy.
Another important aspect is feedback. The theories that business has about its customers’ needs and how to satisfy them may or may not be true. Above all, a business needs quick feedback regarding its hypotheses. The precondition for this is collaboration and a common understanding.
Compare a company operating under a business versus IT model with the Scrum Team introduced at the beginning of the chapter—a team in which the members are aligned in their common goal and work together to achieve the goal. It’s not about which “tribe” we belong to, IT or business, but about the common goal we try to achieve.
Taking Responsibility for a Valuable Product
The Development Team in the previous scene is preparing for the upcoming Sprint Review. It does not work on “requirements” that have to be fulfilled but instead reaches for a larger goal that improves the lives and work of the customers.
This includes filling the gap of open questions and discussing them with the Product Owner. The Development Team could have just implemented the registration process for new patients and called it a day. Instead, it took responsibility for the big picture. The team thought about how to roll out the new process to its customers and consequently added configurability to the system. Too many teams we have worked with would have focused only on the acceptance criteria and therefore would have been very surprised by a question from the Product Owner on how to roll out the new functionality with the least risk.
Collaborative Product Backlog Management
The Development Team in this example even took the liberty of adding a clean-up item to the Product Backlog. Isn’t this the Product Owner’s job? No, it isn’t. The Product Owner is accountable for optimizing the value created with the Product Backlog. This doesn’t mean she is the only person allowed to propose value-optimizing ideas. Scrum Teams and their stakeholders benefit from collaborating on the content, using different insights, and refining those insights.
Of course, some Product Owners prefer to have full control over their Product Backlog and are willing (and able) to be the only Product Backlog manager. As long as it doesn’t create a bottleneck that impedes feedback and collaboration, this is fine. Other Product Owners we have worked with have opened the Product Backlog for everyone and created rules around adding Product Backlog items.
One example is that everybody involved or interested in the product can add items to the Product Backlog. Those items have to be explained to and reviewed by the Product Owner soon after their creation. Otherwise, the Product Owner removes the item after a set amount of wait time. From that time on, the Product Owner refines and orders the Product Backlog item as necessary in order to optimize value.
These examples are but two ways of handling the Product Backlog and the creation of new items. Every Product Owner has to find his or her own way of using the Product Backlog to foster the right conversations at the right time.
Sprint Scope Isn’t Fixed
Often, Scrum Teams claim that everything that will be worked on has to be selected and planned during Sprint Planning. Every change to this scope is seen as a violation of the sacred Sprint Plan. Scrum is a framework for solving complex adaptive problems. In a complex environment, more is unknown than is known. This means that you have to face those unknowns at any time and react to them. Sprint Planning tries to create a sufficient understanding of the problem and how to solve it. With this understanding, a Scrum Team is able to align on and work toward the Sprint Goal.
Clarifying and deciding open questions in the Sprint has value. It reduces the up-front work that might be wasted if you find out that things have to be changed late in the process. Options have value until the so-called last responsible moment. This is a point in time when the act of not deciding hurts more than making a decision that turns out to be wrong and that has to be changed later.
The Development Team did the right thing when, after receiving early user feedback during the Sprint, it implemented a process differently than had been agreed on during Sprint Planning. The team didn’t change the plan because it could, but because it was able to increase value with this change. Not changing the course would probably have hurt the entire Scrum Team in the end.
This also means that the Development Team could add a yet-unclear Product Backlog item to the Sprint to be clarified during implementation. When a Development Team is confident that it will be able to implement something during the Sprint, this makes it “ready” for a Sprint.
The Product Owner Is Present
The Product Owner in the opening scene is interested in the progress of the Development Team. She wants to know about details they discuss and decisions they make so that she can actively support them.
Many Product Owners see their main responsibility as creating a clear and transparent Product Backlog. To do this, they discuss and align stakeholder needs and formulate requirements, often in the form of User Stories. The User Stories are then briefly discussed by the Product Owner and the Development Team to get an estimate in Story Points. In Sprint Planning, the Development Team has one last chance to ask clarifying questions and then has to make its commitment.
This dysfunctional way of fixing Product Backlog items prior to a Sprint usually leads to problems. The Development Team tries to clarify all of its open questions, which increases the up-front effort of backlog refinement. Some questions are not evident to the Development Team before it starts working, and so they can’t be taken into account during refinement and estimation. This leads to the Product Owner’s assumption that every question is answered but leaves the Development Team wondering if this is the case.
In Scrum, the Product Owner and Development Team should collaborate as much as needed in order to optimize product value. This starts with the Product Owner aligning and consolidating the different needs of the stakeholders. It continues with refinement to create a mutual understanding of why the Product Backlog item is important. Refinement also clarifies the expected outcome and what needs to be done in order to reach it. Refinement doesn’t stop with Sprint Planning but continues as questions arise that need to be answered.
A Product Owner who wants to collaborate in this way needs to be present during the Sprint either by being physically near to the rest of the Scrum Team or by making sure collaboration is possible. A Product Owner not working near the Development Team all the time could offer regular consultation hours, for example, every day from 9:00 until 11:30. Alternatively, subject matter experts have to be available for a team, or even working inside the Development Team, so that they can answer ad hoc questions during the Sprint and be experts for the solution created. As long as they don’t act as a communication filter between the Product Owner and the rest of the Development Team, this arrangement can work fine.