Accidental adversaries

I recently attended a sprint review. It went on like this. PO checked every acceptance criteria in details, and criticized as much as he could; while team defended and demanded for acceptance, as much as they could. I heard comments as below.


  • From team, "we will only work on what's in acceptance criteria, if you want this, you need to include it in the acceptance criteria. It's your problem if you don't."
  • From PO, "But this should be common sense. Ok, I shall write more details into acceptance criteria, otherwise, you guys will just argue for acceptance."


PO and team are supposed to embody agile value "customer collaboration over contract negotiation". However, it looked as if they were in win-lose situation. How come?


System archetype "Accidental adversaries" well captures the dynamic.


Accidental adversaries.jpgThere are 2 reinforcing loops and 2 balancing loops involved.


  1. It begins with the outer reinforcing loop. PO is responsible for the success of the product, and is capable of defining the right product. While team is responsible for the product delivery, and is capable of building the right product. They benefit a lot from collaboration. When PO invites team into the collaboration on defining the product, team understands why to build, then, what to build deeply. When team delivers the right product to customers, they are more motivated in contributing further on product specification. This in turn helps PO succeed in defining the right product.
  2. At some point, bad cases occurred. For example, product missed some functionality because team thought that it would not be necessary. Customers complained and escalated, and PO got blamed for missing the specification. PO tried to improve by writing detailed acceptance criteria for team, then, strictly checking the written criteria for acceptance. They thought that this practice gave them the control necessary to get the right product. This forms the balancing loop in the upper left.
  3. However, this practice generated the un-intended consequence. When PO declined team's delivery, team's capability was evaluated as poor, and team was hurt. Thus, to fix it, team asked acceptance criteria from PO, blindly followed the written criteria and demanded acceptance based on what's there. This forms the balancing loop in the lower right.
  4. When team succeeds in defending the acceptance, it becomes PO's failure in defining the right product. To deal with this, PO focuses more on the details in acceptance criteria and criticizes the sprint outcome more. This in turn caused team to become more defensive. This forms the reinforcing loop in the middle.


Even though from PO and team's own perspective, what they are doing both make perfect sense, PO and team become accidental adversaries over time. The focus shifts from customer collaboration to contract negotiation, and from improving to blaming.


What are strategies for leverage in this situation?


  • Understand each other's behavior, i.e. their balancing loops, and realize that what they are doing makes sense from their own point of view, and the obstruction to each other's success is unintended. The problem is not caused by people, but by system.
  • Break the middle reinforcing loop by stopping the evaluation for both PO and team based on acceptance criteria and acceptance, i.e. if it is declined, it is team's problem; and if it is accepted but customer is not satisfied, it is PO's problem. Stop the blaming first.
  • Instead, strengthen the outer reinforcing loop by aligning both to the common higher level goal - customer gets the right product. Promote solving the problem and, more importantly, improving together, over blaming each other. When team does not deliver the right product, PO asks team how he can help team understand better; when PO does not define the right product, team asks PO how they can contribute. PO and team are on the same Scrum team and collaborate to achieve the common goal.


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lv Yi published on May 17, 2011 12:01 AM.

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