Author Archives: Sampath Prahalad

About Sampath Prahalad

Agile and Scrum practitioner and evangelist. Certified Scrum master and among the first 50 PMI-Agile Certified Professionals in India. My firm belief is that each of us have something to share and teach which makes us a Guru. So, ScrumGuru refers to each of us who mutually exchange ideas and thoughts thus making it mutually enriching.

Risk Management in an Agile world

With the craze of many companies and organizations, big and small to jump onto the Agile bandwagon, a few areas of traditional Software development get ignored or trivialized. More often than not, these come back to bite us late in the cycle. In true Agile fashion, teams then scramble to do the best they can to get the product over the line.

One such area of Software Development that sometimes gets overlooked is Risk Management. Traditional Risk management had projects following either the qualitative or the quantitative approach to Risk management. Detailed risk mitigation would be then put in place to ensure that the Risk was well handled. Many times, this placed a considerable overhead on the team.

Agile teams following the Scrum or XP model inherently embed Risk Management. Risks would typically be identified when the team throws up impediments in the daily standup OR fails to meet its Sprint commitment (because of a story being more complicated or having a dependency that failed to fall in place). Whatever the reason may be, Agile teams are pretty good in throwing up Impediments quite early. These impediments could turn into significant risks, more so when they involve external stakeholders and other teams.

In view of keeping the processes light weight, Agile methodologies are not prescriptive about how the risks can be made visible or managed. From a management perspective, the PMO or Senior Management might see this as a flaw in the Agile methodology since they do not get enough visibility about the risks and hence unable to step in at the right time to clear the path.

In such a scenario, here are some tips that would help.

  • If using an electronic tool like Jira or Rally, raise a work item of type ‘Risk’, provide a severity rating to it and put a Blocked status onto it. Assign them to the right stakeholder and publish a weekly list of these risks to the management. Note: Make sure that the key stakeholders have access and are watchers to these risks.
  • If using a physical board, create a 3 x 3 Risk matrix (Probability(L,M,H) vs Impact(L,M,H)) on the physical board, put up the risk and assign the stakeholder’s avatar to it. Take a snapshot on a weekly basis and send it out to the management stakeholders.
  • Report your blocker in the Scrum of Scrums meeting, explain the potential consequences and nudge the management to take action (mitigate, avoid or accept).

In short, the key to an effective Risk management in an Agile world is to make it highly visible, accountable, time bound and easy to action upon.

Are there other light weight and effective Risk management practices that your Agile team follows ??
Do let us know..

Banish long Sprint Planning meetings

In the Agile world, a Sprint Planning meeting would typically have the Business / Product Owner listing and explaining each story to be delivered and the team goes about doing their best to understand each story based on questions and discussions. The team then estimate the effort needed for each story and commit to whatever they think is feasible within the Sprint duration. For a 2 week Sprint, this typically takes around 3-4 hours.

In many cases, discussions on stories unearth scenarios that need further Analysis by the Product Owner before they can be ready for development. These stories cannot be picked up for development even if they are of highest priority since there are some unknowns about them. This means that the Sprint backlog could consist of stories that are not of highest priority. Also, this results in a long Planning meeting due to more discussions and more stories to discuss.

Is there a way to change this and ensure that the Sprint backlog is filled with stories of highest priority and value? Also, is it possible to have a shorter planning meeting?

Fortunately, the answer is Yes…

The key is to remove the discussions and visit all possible scenarios up front.

The answer is to have an Elaboration session for the next Sprint in the middle of the current Sprint. The Scrum Master gets the team and the Product Owner together for the Elaboration session. Here, the Product Owner presents the stories for development in the next Sprint and solicits questions and feedback. The team and Product owner discuss all possible scenarios and get a complete understanding. There is a huge possibility that some stories might not be ready for development. The Product Owner then has the time to action these before the actual Sprint planning meeting a week later.

This way, the team is fully aware of the stories coming up in the next Planning meeting, the Product owner has time to fine tune his high priority stories and many stories can be committed to and taken up for development without much discussion at the planning meeting. All this leads to a short planning meeting and a less stressed out team. The additional meeting that is added would provide value by unearthing issues up front thus providing enough time for resolution.

I strongly encourage management and teams to try this option out. Do let us know how this worked for you.

Product Management by Committee

One of the key issues that plagues a delivery team is having no Product Manager to guide the team. However, something that is more troublesome is having multiple Product Managers for a single product. This is what is sometimes referred to as “Product Management by Committee”. I am reminded of a scenario where a boat in a race had 5 people managing it and 4 people actually rowing.

Did you say “Oh, Come on..!! it can’t be that bad” ?

I personally feel that if you want to set a team up for failure, this is one of the things that you could definitely do.

Let us take a closer look at what the problems could be, with having multiple product managers.

Same goal, different priorities: Each PM tries to push his Agenda. Many times, each PM might have the same overall goal, but different priorities. They don’t want to contradict / confront each other. Often, they end up talking to some key resources in the team and pushing their items / enhancements without letting the other PMs know.

Collective knowledge or Collective confusion? There is a possibility that each PM has a different understanding to a scenario in the Product domain. For example, 2 PMs might have varying understanding of how an Insurance claim is to be handled when a car being driven by a person less than 25 years of age gets into an accident at a roundabout with a car driven by a drunk person. In such a scenario, the team would be chasing a moving target if they have to listen to both PMs.

Personality clash: PMs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more technically oriented than others, some more forceful, some more knowledgeable and some more articulative. When you have a mix of such people providing directions, the team would be torn apart and staring straight at failure.


When Ted, my colleague took up the role of the Scrum Master for one such Agile team, this was one of the things that he identified as a failure factor. He set up a meeting with all 4 Product Managers and told them that henceforth the team would be happy to take inputs from all of them, however, all decisions and directions only from one of them. The PM committee now had to decide who that would be. They nominated Dave ( one of the key stakeholders within the PM committee) to be that person for the duration of the current release. This meant that

  • Dave would set priorities for the team and define the Acceptance criteria for each story.
  • Dave would resolve any conflict of ideas within the PM committee and provide direction to the Delivery team.
  • The Delivery team is not faced with various personalities with different agendas providing conflicting requirements. The team and PM have an opportunity to understand each other well and compliment each other for a successful delivery.

The team is now slowly increasing their iteration velocity, meeting most iteration commitments, gaining the trust of senior management and is able to enjoy their work. I believe this change has been the major factor in causing this turnaround.

Let us know what you think…


(Pic: Thanks to Remix Monkeys (A new creative look and Style on Urban Dance))

Backlog Elaboration: A Win-Win Proposition

As we all know, Product Managers are responsible for maintaining the Backlog such that it reflects the demands of the market. As market dynamics change, the backlog changes too. The Agile way of constantly prioritizing the backlog and keeping the most relevant features or stories at the top are key to ensuring that the product stays competitive in today’s dynamic market.

Many times, the Product Manager and the Product Development team go into Sprint Planning without enough clarity on some features or user stories. This causes the planning meeting to go in circles Continue reading

Hey Product Manager, is your backlog mature?

As the world embraces the Agile methodologies with gusto, it is important to get certain elements right to ensure that the key Agile principles are properly implemented. One such element is Transparency. A mature Product Backlog goes a long way in ensuring transparency.

For the beginner, a Product Backlog is a wish list of features or enhancements that would make your product great. It contains User stories which are features or enhancements written in the language of the end user. Contrary to Waterfall projects which have a baselined and frozen list of requirements, the Product Backlog is kept alive and constantly modified through the life of the Product. It is this changing nature of the Product Backlog that is both an asset and a potential liability. It is important to ensure that the Product Backlog does not become just a stale document of EVERYTHING that might or might not get implemented in the product’s lifetime. It is the Product Manager’s responsibility to maintain a mature backlog and once done, everyone involved in the organization stands to gain from it.


With this background, I shall now attempt to define the characteristics of “A Mature Product Backlog”.

Valuable User Stories: A Mature Product Backlog contains user stories that deliver value to the customer. Each user story should take the product one step closer to the product that the end user desires. Additionally, each user story should have Acceptance criteria clearly listing the boundary conditions, performance criteria and other quality expectations.

Prioritized Backlog: The Product Backlog should be prioritized by the Product Owner in terms of the highest value stories at the top of the list. Another factor to be considered is the Risk involved in implementing the user story. It is a good idea to categorize user stories on Value and Risk and then prioritize the backlog on Value first and Risk next. High Value Low Risk stories would be at the top with the Low Value High Risk stories at the bottom.

INVEST(ed) User stories: A mature Product Backlog has user stories that follow Bill wake’s Independant, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Sized appropriately and Testable (INVEST) mnemonic.

A definite list: The backlog is a list of user stories that will make your product great and it is not possible to only have a certain number of user stories in it. However, instead of having an endless list of small and big features, all I want you to do is a) Keep features that are due to be implemented in the current Release very detailed, b) Group similar features that are part of future releases into Epics and c) Keep user stories from future releases big and break them down into smaller user stories only as you come close to implementing them.

Estimated User stories: This is an Optional requirement for a mature Backlog. It is great to have a Product Backlog with user stories that are assigned story points to determine the size and effort involved. This helps the Product Owner in prioritizing the user stories. For estimating a large number of user stories, Planning poker could be ineffective and the Affinity estimating technique will be a better method.

Over to you now. do let us know if something is missing in this list.

(Pic: Thanks to Flickr: Creative Commons for the Backlog pic)

3 Key Personality Enhancements from Agile

All over the world, Agile methodologies are changing the ways of working and are leading to faster value realization for both the businesses and customers. The value that Agile methodologies are bringing is evident from the fast paced and the high volume of companies and organizations adopting Agile.


However, the angle that we are looking at here are the personality improvements that individuals get from being in an Agile team. These are traits that team members get from working in a self organized Scrum team and will be an asset for life. These traits are visible across most flavours of Agile, but we shall stick to Scrum for the moment.

Small steps with feedback: Scrum advocates frequent small releases to market with valuable content rather than one big release at the end of the project. This way, each time a small release is made, feedback is obtained and is ploughed back into the product to make it better. Scrum teaches you to take small steps towards the goal, not relying on one big jump at a later point of time. Scrum understands that planning is important, but it is more important to get moving. Similarly, with each personal goal, it is good to identify the goal, break it down into smaller parts, implement them one at a time, observe the results and fine tune or change the goal as needed. Many times, the personal goals and resolutions need constant reminding and by making frequent small changes, you are not only keeping the goal alive, you are also taking steady steps towards the final goal. As Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory”

Effective Improved Communication: Scrum puts power into your hands as a team member. To exercise this power, you have to talk and express yourself in planning and estimation sessions, make your voice heard in daily stand-up meetings and voice your opinions in Retrospectives. Scrum’s rituals are all about being heard without being dominant. Initially, it might be hard for some team members to lose their inhibition, but Scrum’s daily stand-ups, planning meetings and retrospectives urge each one to open up and participate. In a positive way, team members are forced to open up in a trusted team environment and over time, this gives confidence to individuals to be more expressive in bigger groups and forums. Voila, Scrum has made you a better public speaker.

See the other person’s perspective: A team composition in Scrum consists of subject matter experts (SMEs) in Development, Testing, etc. As they plan together and work together Sprint after Sprint, they orient themselves towards the Sprint goal each time. With this, once a person is done with his/her task, he/she is now looking to pick up and contribute towards any other task that needs to be completed to meet the Sprint goal. The team member is picking up new cross functional skills and looking at things in a new perspective along with contributing towards the Sprint goal. Development and testing silos are broken and the team becomes self organized. Each person is able to understand and appreciate the other’s views and experience.
This experience teaches us to think more broadly when we face a situation in life where instead of criticizing a person who holds a different perspective, we try to put ourselves in his/her shoes and think from their perspective. Though this is no rocket science, the experience from working in an Agile cross functional team allows us to pause and listen to a perspective that could be valid and totally different.

Do let us know how your personality has gained by working in an Agile environment.

The Silent Achiever

Here is a good article about the 7 Must Have Project Management skills. I really liked the way that it is laid out and I believe that these skills are Must Haves for a successful Project Manager. However, the skill No. 6 “Recognize and solve problems quickly” rang a bell. I do agree that a Project Manager should be able to see and resolve a problem quickly. However, what I think is a better skill to have is the ability to predict a particular problem or risk before it happens, work on it pro-actively and nip the problem in the bud.

The difference here is between a Hero and a Silent Achiever. Imagine two adjacent fields with dry grass and bushes on a hot summer day. On one, there is a fire caused by the extreme heat while on the other field, there isn’t. A Hero might be seen as one who goes in a helicopter, stoops low and douses the bush fire that is raging. The Silent Achiever is one who realized that the atmosphere is dry and hot, predicted the bush fire and cut the grass or sprinkled enough water on the field to ensure that the bush fire does not occur. So, for the casual observer, it seems to be Business as usual and the effort put in by the Silent Achiever is not usually noticed. Continue reading