Limits to one Product Backlog - 3

What are the limits to one PBL (Product Backlog)? Two major areas are from PO (Product Owner) and team, respectively. We shall first focus on the limits from PO. When people claim that it is impossible for one PO to manage one PBL shared by many teams, there are actually two different limits behind. One is on clarification, based on the assumption that PO needs to clarify items in the PBL; the other is on prioritization, based on the assumption that PO needs to prioritize items in the PBL. We shall focus on the first limit in this article, and the second one in the next article.

Fake limit on clarification

One PBL leads to optimal organizational adaptiveness, however, it is limited by a few factors, one of which is PO's capability on clarification. This can be illustrated as the below balancing loop.

Limits to one PBL 3 - 1.jpg

PO's capability on clarification can be metrified as "#items a PO can clarify". The gap between the capability (e.g. a PO can clarify 50 items) and the need (e.g. there are 200 items in one PBL) creates the anxiety for the PO. The most common response is to increase the number of PBLs, and accordingly, the number of POs, so that each PO needs to clarify fewer items, as there are fewer items in each PBL. If we accept this logic, probably one PBL can only be shared by no more than 2-3 teams.

However, this is a fake limit, as we don't need to let PO clarify all items for teams. Instead, teams can clarify items for themselves, while PO focuses more on the prioritization. This is described in the LeSS guide "Prioritization over Clarification", and can be illustrated as the below balancing loop.

Limits to one PBL 3 - 2.jpg

Team's capability on clarification is the key factor to make it work. It is common that teams at first lack the product knowledge and skills to do the clarification well. Does this mean that it is at least temporarily a real limit to one PBL? Not really, because even in that case we can still keep one PBL.

Keep one PBL

When teams are not ready to take over the clarification immediately, we can still keep one PBL but have some people help the PO on clarification. As those helpers are only for clarification, they don't maintain separate PBLs. Thus, they are not POs, but more like FOs (Feature Owners) described in the previous article. The below part is related to clarification.

"FO does high-level clarification and leads the splitting of the feature into smaller backlog items. Then, he collaborates with teams during PBR (Product Backlog Refinement) to do detailed clarification and define acceptance tests for those backlog items."

This approach can be illustrated as the below balancing loop.

Limits to one PBL 3 - 3.jpg

Instead of having multiple PBLs, we keep one PBL, but have a few FOs to help the PO on clarification. However, please keep in mind that teams will at least participate in the detailed analysis during PBR.

Where do those FOs come from? Let's look at two scenarios, one used to have "team PO" maintaining a separate PBL for its own team, the other without.

  • In the first scenario, "team PO" may not be willing to join the team immediately for valid or invalid reasons. Under this circumstance, we can turn "team PO" into FO, and get rid of its separate PBL. Meanwhile, they still lead the clarification through their product knowledge and skills. This creates one PBL right away, as well as makes a next step towards the vision of PO on prioritization and teams on clarification.
  • In the second scenario, some members may take the lead in actively developing the product knowledge and skills for effective clarification. Is it necessary to introduce FO as a new role, when there was no "team PO" before? Probably no. In general, this relates to the interaction of FO vs. team in clarification.

Feature Owner in transition

Is FO inside or outside team? In our previous experience, it was not clearly defined, but hinted as being outside team. It had the negative impact on the rest of teams.

Limits to one PBL 3 - 4.jpg

The danger with the FO role is shown in the above "shifting the burden" dynamic. FO approach in B1 is the short-term symptomatic solution, while team approach in B2 is the long-term fundamental solution. Furthermore, there is an addiction R loop that drives our dependency on the FO solution. B2 represents the vision, without shared vision, we will stick with B1 forever.

Once we agree on the shared vision, we leverage by decreasing B1 as well as increasing B2. The below are a few possible next steps in tactics.

  • Make FO a role inside team, and let team decide who takes FO for which feature (decrease B1)
  • Facilitate teams to learn and grow product capability during PBR led by FOs (increase B2)
  • Have different team members take FO for various features (decrease B1)
  • Try no explicit FO for one feature and let teams self-organize to clarify (increase B2)

Should we remove the FO role eventually? In fact, I am fine if team decides to keep FO as a dynamic role inside team. As long as team members take FO at various time for various features through self-organization, this role is not any more limiting.

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