Product Backlog Refinement: Scrum master's role

Last post 06:12 pm May 12, 2022
by Daniel Wilhite
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04:43 pm February 19, 2019

Hi Everyone,

Per the scrum guide, the product backlog refinement "is an ongoing process in which the Product Owner and the Development Team collaborate on the details of Product Backlog items."

The above line does not mention anything about what the scrum master should be doing during this activity. I am assuming the scrum master can help facilitate the meeting and also to coach the team that refinement should happen. Should the scrum master be conducting planning poker (if this is practiced) ? Usually, during these meetings, from my personal experience, I am mostly a silent participant. Is there anything else that I may be missing as far as the scrum master's role during this?

05:52 pm February 19, 2019

The above line does not mention anything about what the scrum master should be doing during this activity.

It might be a good opportunity to provide service to the Product Owner and Development Team, e.g.

  • Finding techniques for effective Product Backlog management;
  • Helping the Scrum Team understand the need for clear and concise Product Backlog items;
  • Understanding product planning in an empirical environment;
  • Facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed;

On the other hand, since the Scrum Master does not necessarily have to attend this activity at all, there may be an opportunity to provide service to the wider organization, e.g.

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organization.

 

06:00 pm February 19, 2019

Where in the guide does it say that Refinement is a meeting?  Could the act of a developer looking over the story on their own and raising questions also be considered refinement? 

Another point.  From the Scrum Guide:

The Scrum Team decides how and when refinement is done. Refinement usually consumes no more than 10% of the capacity of the Development Team.

Scrum Team decides, the Scrum Master is part of that team, Scrum Master facilitates the understanding of Scrum.  So as a Scrum Master might you be best serving the team by facilitating that the activity is done? 

10% of the capacity of the Development Team...  For simple math, consider only one individual on that team, assume a 2 week sprint and 8 hour days.  Using standard project management practice you assume 70% availability for the sprint work.

(80 hours X .7) X .1 = 5.6 hours

Are you doing 5.6 hours of meetings for the refinement?  As I said before, maybe your best value to the team is to help them understand the practice and benefit of refinement instead of trying to find a way to actually participate in the gatherings.

06:44 pm February 19, 2019

Daniel Wilhite I agree with you that refinement should not necessarily be a meeting and I also agree that it would be more beneficial if I could help the team find ways to better practice and benefit from Scrum, however, the reality is that, that's not what my manager or his management wants from a scrum master. It reached a point where the debate ended in the classic question "Why do i need a scrum master if his role is only to facilitate meetings and coach the team? Can't I find someone else to do that from within the team? Why should I spend more?"

The next reality is that the team themselves don't want to take responsibility to refine the backlog on a daily basis or as needed. So this refinement meeting is held once every week. Again, this was also the way the Agile Coaches in the organization asked us to structure the "Scrum Ceremonies". Yes, you heard me right, they wanted us to have a meeting scheduled for backlog refinement and wanted us to meet this way because apparently this is a formal scrum event. Some of us are just balancing this reality (at the workplace) to what is actually said in the scrum guide and we're trying to find opportunities to get away from these wrong practices without getting fired :)

10% of the capacity of the Development Team...  For simple math, consider only one individual on that team, assume a 2 week sprint and 8 hour days.  Using standard project management practice you assume 70% availability for the sprint work.

(80 hours X .7) X .1 = 5.6 hours

Using your example above, if we had 9 Developers (excluding PO and SM in the count), then we would have ~ 50 hrs (9 x 5.6) for backlog refinement and my understanding is that we can use no more than 50 hrs as a team for refining the backlog in a given sprint of 2 weeks duration. Can you help me understand the feasibility of this? Theoretically, I understand the above math, but I don't understand in what scenario a team may spend so much time for refinement? If we refined the backlog everyday and "if" we used 5 hours per day, then only we could use 50 hours. Normally, I am assuming we would need more than 5 hours to keep the backlog refined.

07:39 pm February 19, 2019

@Steve, I feel your pain.  My current organization recently had a conversation among all the Managers that started with "The Scrum Masters aren't busy enough. What else can they do?".  And I also know that what I said is according to Scrum theory and doesn't necessarily reflect reality.  So let me give you my reality answer.

I don't know of any team that spends 5.6 hours per person doing refinement.  In most cases they are lucky if they do two 1-hour meetings in a two week sprint.  But I still recommend that each person spend some time outside of those meetings looking over the backlog.  There is usually a couple of the people that do it but they are the minority. But hey, a guy can dream.  I focus my energy on helping to keep the team on track when they do spend time refining. Prevent them from going down rabbit holes and discussing what possibly-could-be-needed-at-some-point-in-the-future-by-someone-that-might-use-the-feature and help them focus on discussing what they know now. That is the extent of my participation in any of the Refinement meetings if I attend them at all.

To combat the "why do we need scrum masters" idea, I spend a lot my "off team" time looking for things I can do to help the non-team members understand and appreciate how the team is working. I provide a lot of reading material that I find on the web.  I spend time in meetings with other groups of the company advocating Scrum and Agile to help them understand how our development organization has changed. I help the outside folks understand how the interactions between them and dev are changing or need to. Help them understand how they can best interact to get what they want faster.  I make sure that all of the Development Management knows about what I do outside the team by constantly talking to them, even if it is individual conversations.  I help them understand that what I am doing has been part of the reason that others are working better with the dev org. 

As for your Agile Coaches referring to Refinement as a "Scrum Ceremony", that shows that they have not read the Scrum Guide in a while.  The word "ceremony" does not exist in the current revision and I couldn't find it in any of the revision history either. I am not sure if/when it was removed but there is no such thing as a Scrum Ceremony.  And since Refinement is only mentioned in one place in the Guide in the section describing the Product Backlog and is specifically called an "act" and that the "process is on-going".  It isn't mentioned at all in the section that describes the Scrum EVENTS. If I were you and your fellow Scrum Masters, I'd be questioning the Agile Coaches on where they came up with the information they are using as the basis for their premise. I'll admit that some of the scaled versions will prescribe Refinement as a essential event but you haven't mentioned anything about scaled implementation. If scaling is in play, my position does change some. 

The Guide states the Scrum Master's responsibility to the organization. 

The Scrum Master serves the organization in several ways, including:

  • Leading and coaching the organization in its Scrum adoption;
  • Planning Scrum implementations within the organization;
  • Helping employees and stakeholders understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development;
  • Causing change that increases the productivity of the Scrum Team; and,
  • Working with other Scrum Masters to increase the effectiveness of the application of Scrum in the organization.

In your case, the Agile Coaches are part of the organization.  Maybe it is time for them to learn more about Scrum. If you can show them exactly what the Guide says and have them explain their justification for what they are coaching, you are doing that.  One last thought on the Agile Coach thing that comes from the Scrum Guide (emphasis added by me).

Scrum is free and offered in this Guide. Scrum’s roles, events, artifacts, and rules are immutable and although implementing only parts of Scrum is possible, the result is not Scrum.

 

 

08:06 pm February 19, 2019

if we had 9 Developers (excluding PO and SM in the count), then we would have ~ 50 hrs (9 x 5.6) for backlog refinement and my understanding is that we can use no more than 50 hrs as a team for refining the backlog in a given sprint of 2 weeks duration. 

Steve, that is an incorrect understanding.

Per the Scrum Guide:

Refinement usually consumes no more than 10% of the capacity of the Development Team. (emphasis mine)

Refinement could take longer than the 10% capacity guideline.   Scrum Teams are not time-boxed to only refine up to 10% of their capacity.

From personal experience, I have yet to serve a team that refines as much as 10% of their capacity.   But if they did (or exceeded it), the question isn't so much why are they refining so much, but are they establishing and meeting expectations around completed work?

Are they delighting their customers?  Do they feel their refinement efforts are efficient and effective?

01:03 pm February 20, 2019

One worthy note to add to the above: in the initial stages (ie new product), a (smart) team will usually spend far more than that mythical 10%. If they aren't, it may be a pretty good indicator their knowledge is insufficient > their assumptions are wrong > their direction inadequate. 

04:38 pm August 29, 2019

On top of the original question, I would like to ask below from a PSM prep. book-

Select all that apply. What are some examples of Product Backlog management techniques where a Scrum Master can coach the Product Owner and the Development Team?

a) Creating a common standard that defines the preferred level of description and transparency each Product Backlog Item should meet before introducing them in Sprint Planning. The Team can then use this standard as a guideline to decompose the Items.

b) In addition to using value, a Product Owner can choose input from the Development Team on ordering the items based on their technical coherence.

c) Choosing a tool to manage the Product Backlog.

d) Techniques like writing the items in the form of user stories and their Acceptance Tests.

-------Answer-------

A Scrum Master coaches the Development Team and the Product Owner about managing the Product Backlog to facilitate empiricism-based product planning and arranging the items so that the order can maximize overall value. The Scrum Master also coaches the Product Owner to collaborate with the Development Team on ordering. Correct answers are ‘a,’ ‘b,’ and ‘d.’

-------------------

My take -  Why option C is not an answer here. Does it not come under SM duties to "find techniques for effective PB management" as mentioned in Scrum guide. I guess SM should coach PO for choosing a tool to manage the PB. Is it not an answer just because it says about "tool" while as per scrum guide it needn't be a tool, it can be any technique.

02:20 pm May 11, 2022

So that brings me to the question, How then can the scrum master impact be felt useful or important during the Backlog Refinement session?

What should I do to make myself relevant during the refinement session?

06:12 pm May 12, 2022

From my experience, facilitating the discussion is the biggest contribution a Scrum Master can provide.  Help the team stay on track. Don't let them get embrowled in details that are not known.  Keep them focused on the information that is known today instead of letting them focus on what could happen in the future if some unknown situation was to occur. Keep the aware of how much time they are spending on an item and ask if they feel like they know enough?  Ask what needs to happen if they do not feel they know enough.

Keep them focused on the reason they are together and help them make the best use of the time they are spending together.