The interview with Hans deVries, Project Management and Agile expert and instructor at MT&DC, conducted by Szymon Pawłowski

Why do some companies face challenges or even have problems when they introduce Agile Project Management with Scrum?

Scrum is a framework that allows an organization to improve their project development and delivery significantly. In order to achieve that it requires most organizations to change their approach towards software development. A cultural change is needed in the way requirements are gathered, no longer all upfront, but when they are perceived to add value to the actual development effort that will deliver actual value to the end user. Many organizations are either not aware nor willing to change that approach and try to implement Agile Scrum on top of an existing Waterfall approach. If not done carefully many organizations fall back to what they know best (e.g. waterfall) and assume that Agile is not for them.

The close and frequent interaction of the Product Owner with the team is another factor that Scrum brings to the table. 

Many organizations neither have the enough people nor the right people to become Product Owners to work closely with the project resulting in the creation of proxy Product Owners who do not have the right authority and knowledge to guide the Scrum teams to success.

What are your golden recommendations for C-suites when they think of “going Agile”?

Any executive who is evaluating different software development approaches needs to consider the impact that “going Agile” is going to have on their whole organization. The required changes to the current approaches (JIT requirements, time boxing, daily Standups, early deliveries and value driven approaches) are relatively easy applied to a small group of projects.

It is therefore recommended to start with a set of small to medium size projects to allow the organization to learn what it means to be running Agile projects and develop a core group of knowledgeable resources who can spread the knowledge and experiences with other (new) groups.

Make sure to set the right expectations and allow teams to learn from their initial “mistakes”. Agile is considered to be an adaptive approach and that means that we learn as we go and get better along the way.

Are there specific business sectors which can easier adopt an agile Scrum approach for managing projects?

In theory Agile Scrum can be applied to any project in any business sector. Research has proven however that small to medium size projects that develop online applications for tablets and smart phones are very successful in the Scrum world.

Many financial institutions are heavily investing in Agile approaches since new organizations that have built a flexible development and deployment models are gaining ground in their ability to deliver financial applications.

Many large Federal Agencies are adopting Agile due to budget cuts and the need to deliver quicker.

What are the most important responsibilities of a Scrum Master and how it is different from a traditional Project Manager?

A Scrum Master is a full time facilitator who can handle 1-3 teams and is as a minimum responsible for organizing meetings (ceremonies), enforcing time-boxes and responding to reported impediments. Additional responsibilities for a Scrum Master are:

  • Improving Product Owner effectiveness by finding ways to (better) maintain the Product Backlog and Release Plan.
  • Working with the team to ensure they follow the Scrum guidelines but also ensure that the team is working well together and provide assistance in many project related areas like sprint goals, Scrum Boards and Task boards. As well as assistance in the development of Stories and writing tasks.
  • Validate Engineering practices, using continuous integration, balancing end-to-end test and automated Unit Tests.
  • Check on inter-team communication (Scrum of Scrums), are you creating a learning organization.

A traditional Project Manager has the ultimate responsibility to deliver a project as defined by the scope of the project. The traditional project manager is directing the team on who does what and when. A Scrum Master works with a self-organizing team in a servant leader role and is really the facilitator to assist the team in achieving their goals. A Scrum Master may never commit to work to be done by the team.

From your personal experience what are the best practices to utilize the Product Owner role to deliver better product?

The Scrum Product Owner is typically a project’s key stakeholder. Part of the Product Owner responsibilities is to have a vision of what he or she wishes to build, and convey that vision to the scrum team. This is key to successfully starting any agile software development project. The agile Product Owner does this in part through the Product Backlog, which is a prioritized features list for the product.

The Product Owner is commonly a lead user of the system or someone from marketing, product management or anyone with a solid understanding of users, the market place, the competition and of future trends for the domain or type of system being developed.

This, of course, varies tremendously based on whether the team is developing commercial software, software for internal use, hardware or some other type of product. The key is that the person in the Product Owner role needs to have a vision for what is to be built.

Although the agile PO prioritizes the Product Backlog during the sprint planning meeting, the team selects the amount of work they believe they can do during each sprint, and how many sprints will be required.

The Product Owner does not get to say, “We have four sprints left, therefore you must do one-fourth of the Product Backlog this sprint”. The Scrum Product Owner’s job is to motivate the team with a clear, elevating goal. Team members know best what they are capable of, and so they select which user stories from the top of the Product Backlog they can commit to delivering during any sprint.

In return for the Scrum Team’s commitment to completing the selected user stories from the top of the Product Backlog, the Product Owner makes a reciprocal commitment to not throw new requirements at the team during the sprint. Requirements are allowed to change (and change is encouraged) but only outside the sprint. Once the team starts on a sprint, it remains maniacally focused on the goal of that sprint.

The Product Owner role requires an individual with certain skills and traits, including availability, business savvy and communication skills. First, the Scrum Product Owner needs to be available to his or her team. The best Product Owners show commitment by doing whatever is necessary to build the best product possible – and that means being actively engaged with their teams.

Business savvy is important for the agile Product Owner because he or she is the decision maker regarding what features the product will have. That means, the agile PO should understand the market, the customer and the business in order to make sound decisions. 

Finally, communication is a large part of the Product Owner responsibilities. The Product Owner role requires working closely with key stakeholders throughout the organization and beyond, so he or she must be able to communicate different messages to different people about the project at any given time.