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Forming a Coaching Alliance with Product Owners

6 June 2017

Assessing the organization

One of the main responsibilities of a ScrumMaster or Agile coach is to guide teams, individual members, product owners, and stakeholders around best practices. Coaching is done through regular feedback to improve process and team performance and to challenge the team to improve performance, improve code quality, and more.

For my new project, I took the first step in coaching by scheduling a session with the product owners (POs) to form a coaching alliance or Community of Practice to discuss coaching needs and how to continually improve. My project is an Agile Release Train, which is part of a portfolio-level vision and consists of six Scrum Teams. We have individual POs for each team and a chief product owner (program level).

Whenever I start a new engagement, I first learn about the organization: how Agile it is and its challenges, expectations, teams, stakeholders, and project and team members. This learning comes before providing any "expert" comments or evergreen coaching tips, because every organization is different. An organization's needs and products are unique, so we cannot fit them all into standard Scrum or SAFe guidelines. These frameworks need to take the specific characteristics of a new organization into account.

In this engagement, as part of my effort to form an alliance with the POs, I scheduled a session with them to understand their expectations and challenges, as well as their areas of desired improvement, such as quality of story writing, product delivered in a sprint, and reducing the number of defects.

I want to share my takeaways from this recent project.

Forming a coaching alliance

This was a new project, so I thought it was the right time to start this alliance. The agenda looked something like this:
  1. Introduction
  2. Identify the skills of the POs
  3. Understand the ScrumMaster's expectations
  4. Discuss how the ScrumMaster can assist the PO and team
  5. Is the organization willing to learn, adapt to new changes, and accept mistakes?
  6. Project introduction
  7. Existing challenges and pain points
  8. Process of breaking epics into features and features into stories
  9. Are we writing a good story, and what makes a story great?
  10. Next steps and forming a Community of Practice (CoP)
I started with this agenda and handed over the talking stick to the POs; they all were extremely interested in the conversation and honest about their situation. They also explained existing challenges and their expectations of me. I scheduled the session for two hours, but that was too short for this discussion.

Takeaways from the session

  • The ScrumMaster (SM) reviews and provides feedback regarding the quality of the story and areas for improvement.
  • The SM continues to coach the PO and team about best practices and also challenges them to improve performance and product quality.
  • To satisfy the need for regular introspection and brainstorming, form a CoP with the PO, business systems analyst, QA, and team lead, and schedule a session after the retrospection of each sprint.
  • QA improves participation in grooming meetings because after the PO, the QA has the utmost responsibility to improve story quality.
  • POs were already trying to follow INVEST (independent, negotiable, valuable, estimatable, small, testable) but were having a hard time figuring out what was the thinnest consumable slice of the cake.
  • Improve the Definition of Ready.
    • Add testing data requirements.
    • Identify testing dependencies.
    • Clearly mention any risks, dependencies, and unknowns in the story, or note whether there are none.
    • Identify impacted components.
    • Mention business value.
  • QE shares test cases and test data with developers before completion of story development to improve quality.
  • Introduce peer testing to existing peer code review.
These are a few essential takeaways from the session. Everyone was interested in forming an alliance with regular touch points. For ScrumMasters and coaches, a first victory is winning trust from all stakeholders, and especially the teams and the PO. Forming such an alliance will make your job easier.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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