Kanban Isn’t the Answer to Bad Product Ownership

This content is syndicated from LeadingAgile by Mike Cottmeyer. To view the original post in full, click here.

The Scrum Product Owner has a tough job. Translating business strategy into product strategy and ultimately into teeny-tiny user stories takes a ton of time and effort. Most Product Managers don’t have the time or inclination to be a good Product Owner and most Business Analysts, the people most likely to fill the gap, don’t actually own the product. I almost always recommend to my clients that a team of people work together to fill this role. I don’t really care about the whole ‘single wringable neck’ thing… all I want is well groomed prioritized product backlog, and I think there is more than one way we can get there.

Here is the deal… when teams can’t get well groomed product backlog, it is almost impossible to do Scrum. Teams spend too much time figuring out what to build during sprint planning and not enough time figuring out how to build it. Because teams don’t know how to build the stories, they never really consider if the stories were estimable, nor really discuss how they could swarm to get the stories done earlier in the sprint. This will often result in teams of people that don’t work as teams, daily standup meetings that suck, and missed commitment after missed commitment. Not fun.

Anyway… as Kanban gains popularity and mindshare, many folks think that going iteration-less is the answer. If we can’t get user stories that are small enough to deliver a handful of them in a sprint, and we are always missing our sprint commitments, the problem must be with the time-box itself.  If the time-box has no value… it’s unnecessary…. it’s waste and needs to be eliminated. Maybe what we need to do is just take these big chunks of undefined requirements, run them through a Kanban, and just forget about splitting stories and managing iteration boundaries and totally avoid the issue altogether.

I’m all for eliminating waste, but let me ask you this… how does an iteration-less approach better help us know when we are going to be done?

Like it or not, this whole done thing is going to keep being a thorn in our side.  It’s not going to go away anytime soon. I think people are hardwired to want to know what they are going to get for their money before they agree to spend it. Some of us desperately want this to change, and maybe it will change as business models change, but for now we have to deal with it. I know, I know… if our customers would get out of the way, just let us code, and stop asking what they are going to get for their money, life would be a whole lot simpler.  I get it… it’s just not reality.  At least not my reality.

Okay, back to Kanban… Kanban can answer the ‘what are going to get for our investment’ question just as well as Scrum can. Scrum answers the done question by having us know the size of our backlog and the rate at which the team can complete that backlog, in other words, our velocity. When we know both of these variables we know what we are going to get, when we are going to get it, and we have a way to communicate project status. Kanban doesn’t use velocity, but instead measures cycle time and standard deviation to help us figure out what we can deliver and when.

In Kanban, we still have a queue of necessary features, but rather than measure our velocity sprint to sprint, we measure how long different sized stories take to complete and how much variation we have in that number over time… that’s cycle time and standard deviation. When we know the size of all the items in the backlog, and the normal variation of all the items in the backlog, we can use that data figure out when we are going to be done and what we can deliver in any given timeframe.  That’s good… there lot’s of ways to answer the done question… we just need one of them.

So, we’ve gotten rid of the time-box, but have we actually solved our problem with predictable delivery?  For Kanban to be predictable, we need know the rate at which we deliver requirements, and reduce the variability between the requirements over time. Let’s ask this though… if we don’t know really understand what it takes to build the requirements in our backlog, are we going to know our rate of delivery?  What about our standard deviation? It’s going to be all over the place.  Unless we know something about what we are building and how we are going to build it our delivery process won’t be any more predictable that if we were using Scrum.

I’d suggest that in both Kanban AND Scrum… to increase flow and reduce variation… we break things down into smaller more similarly sized and well understood work items.  In short, the same things that break Scrum are the same thing that breaks Kanban. And therein lies the problem… If we have to answer that pesky done question… we have to break things up small enough that we can tease out the risk and uncertainty, make fine grained trade-offs, and all get on the same page about what we are going to build. Kanban can solve lot’s of problems… and I believe we don’t even yet fully recognize the importance of David Anderson’s contribution… but here is my belief…

Kanban isn’t the answer to poor Product Ownership.

Kanban doesn’t fix anything if we don’t have someone to fill the PO role. We aren’t going to avoid this issue… we have to start figuring out who is going to step up to the plate, form a partnership with the development organization, and start really focusing on breaking stuff down into smaller pieces and driving that shared understanding I keep talking about. You can make the developers do it, but don’t be surprised when you don’t end up with what you expected, and run out of time and money before you have a viable product you can put into market. The inability to fill this role is killing us.

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