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Great Product Owners Facilitate Toward great Product Backlogs

September 28, 2023


This post emphasizes the role of a Product Owner (PO) in guiding a Scrum team through managing a Product Backlog effectively. A PO can foster better engagement and clearer understanding among the team and stakeholders by honing facilitation skills and organizing interactive workshops. Transforming routine meetings into engaging workshops is also discussed as a way to boost communication and feedback, aiding in achieving the product’s goals over successive sprints.

Why great Product Owners facilitate

The purpose of the Product Backlog is to create transparency and forecast the potential work to be done by the Scrum Team to meet the Product Goal. It aims to offer a clear and transparent roadmap for everyone involved. By ordering Product Backlog items like features, epics, user stories, or bugs, the Product Owner tells a story about how they plan to maximize value. The objective? Achieve a shared understanding among the Scrum Team and stakeholders about what’s in the Product Backlog and, more importantly, why it is in its current state. The facilitation prowess of a Product Owner (PO) can significantly enhance this understanding, transforming the backlog into a vibrant narrative that propels everyone towards a shared vision and the current Product Goal. Let’s dive into how a Product Owner’s facilitation skills can be a game-changer in nurturing a Product Backlog that reads like a compelling story. When I started as a Product Owner, I was overly focused on Product Backlog Management and Product Backlog Item formats. I would try to apply all the common practices and stay close to the “right” way to write or attribute a PBI. Writing perfect User Stories didn’t help to increase transparency one bit. It was a lot of effort with minimal results. It was a frustrating period. That frustration made me realize that maybe the formats aren’t as important as the story, and that made me shift my focus from being a Backlog Owner to becoming a Product Owner. Storytelling and facilitation were crucial skills that I picked up in that period and helped me drive my own growth and product success.

Workshop Design: A Product Owner’s Secret Super Power

For a Product Owner, steering the dynamics of a Product Backlog toward achieving a shared vision and the Product Goal is the essence of their role within a Scrum Team. The choreography of ideas, stakeholder management, strategic insights, market feedback, and solutions can be brought to life through well-designed and executed workshops. A well-designed workshop can act as a catalyst for value-driven backlog management and stakeholder collaboration. Designing a good workshop is about structuring an environment for collaborative problem-solving and strategic thinking. It's not just about gathering people in a room, but understanding the core purpose behind it. My approach to designing a workshop is heavily influenced by the book Gamestorming written by Dave Gray et al. Here’s how I go about it

Begin with the Purpose in Mind

Before diving into designing a workshop, I always begin by asking myself the fundamental question: "Why is this workshop necessary? What do I aim to achieve by bringing these individuals together? Is it to delve deep into a particular issue and find a solution? 

Being a facilitator isn't just about setting up the meeting, laying out the agenda, or guiding participants on activities. It's about having a clear vision. What do I, as a Product Owner, aim to achieve from this workshop?

Define the Objective

After understanding the 'why' of the workshop, I focus on its main goal in the context of Scrum. As a Product Owner, what do I expect the participants to achieve? This could be alignment on the Product Goal, insights for the upcoming Sprint Review, clarity on Proto Personas to better understand our users, or refining our Lean Canvas to ensure our product strategy is sound.

Drawing from the book Gamestorming by Dave Gray and others, I liken workshops to Scrum events. Just as we have clear objectives in events like Sprint Planning or Sprint Review, some workshops are straightforward. However, in sessions like those focused on Proto Personas or the Lean Canvas, the outcome might be more exploratory. These open-ended discussions, though less predictable, often yield the most profound insights and direction for our product.

Define the Objective
Designing the Workshop 

Structure the workshop to move from the current scenario (point A) to the desired goal (point B), keeping the objective as your guiding star.


Start by setting the stage, clarifying the purpose, and guiding participants from their current understanding (point A) towards the workshop's objective. This is akin to setting the Product Goal in Scrum. Encourage participants to share their initial thoughts on topics like Proto Personas or the Lean Canvas, ensuring everyone feels comfortable to brainstorm freely.


Dive deeper into the ideas presented, analyzing patterns, and discussing potential solutions. This phase mirrors the collaborative nature of a Sprint Review, where the team assesses what was achieved and what lies ahead. It's a time for interactive discussions, group activities, and creative problem-solving. For example around the Product Backlog or user stories.

Conclude by summarizing the key takeaways, deciding on the next steps, and ensuring everyone is aligned on the outcomes (point B). This phase is about refining ideas, making decisions, and setting a clear path forward, much like finalizing action items after a Sprint Review or Retrospective. Try to ensure that the team is aligned and is clear on the path forward. 
Opening Exploring Closing
Inspect, Adapt and Improvise

Planning is great but things will happen in your workshop that you did not anticipate. Having a structure like this gives you a solid foundation and the ability to improvise and to adapt spontaneously, much like a jazz musician in the moment. It encourages letting go of biases, welcoming fresh ideas, and understanding perspectives, which can aid Product Owners in grasping user needs and stakeholder views. Be open to adapting the initial design of the workshop as new insights emerge. Trust your facilitation toolkit to navigate through these changes gracefully. 

‘Game‘ structure from Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by, Dave Gray, Sunn Brown, and James Macanufo
"Game" structure From Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by, Dave Gray, Sunn Brown, and James Macanufo

Are there specific workshop designs that have worked for you? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Core Facilitation Principles: Unpacked

Facilitation is a craft, and mastering it and becoming a craftsman requires understanding and embodying certain foundational principles. Here are some fundamental principles tailored for Product Owners:

  • Participatory: Encourage active participation, valuing the diverse perspectives in decision-making.
  • Purposeful Facilitation: Keep discussions aligned with intended objectives.
  • Process: Adopt techniques to ensure holistic participation so no valuable insight goes unnoticed.
  • Transparency: Foster shared understanding through clear understandable communication.
  • Healthy Facilitation: Create a safe space for respectful expression of differing opinions.

Sprint Review: A Workshop, Not a Meeting

Let’s face it: meetings are often not the most exciting part of our day. However, workshops? They promise productive and engaging sessions. Reframe your Sprint Review as a workshop, change the dynamics, and watch engagement soar. Please don’t be shy about making your stakeholders work as well, and let them interact with each other. If your stakeholders can share ideas and interact, it will save you a lot of time-consuming individual meetings and having to act as a human email between stakeholders.

In the Sprint Review workshop, the facilitation skills of a Product Owner can significantly impact the following:

  • Engagement: Actively engage stakeholders and the Scrum Team, fostering a two-way dialogue that unearths valuable insights.
  • Feedback Facilitation: Organize and translate feedback into actionable backlog items.
  • Forward Planning: Reflect on the backlog collaboratively and align on priorities for the journey ahead.

How have you made your Sprint Reviews more engaging?

Delving into Workshops

Workshops aren’t limited to Sprint Reviews. Workshops are great tools for creating visions, strategies, product goals, etc. Embedding the essence of facilitation principles, Product Owners can design and conduct workshops that serve as catalysts for backlog refinement and stakeholder engagement. Below are some workshop examples tailored for Product Owners: Here are some workshop examples for Product Owners:

  • Product Vision Workshop: Align the product vision with stakeholder expectations.
  • User Story Mapping Workshop: Create a user story map to align backlog items with user needs.
  • Product Goal Setting Workshop: Define measurable product goals, ensuring alignment with the overall vision.

Closing Thoughts

The journey of Product Backlog Items from a concept to an increment is a collaborative endeavor between people that can be tracked on a Product Backlog but happens primarily outside of it. The Product Backlog is where the result of that collaboration between the Scrum Team and the stakeholders can be stored. Armed with effective facilitation skills, a Product Owis pivotalrole in guiding the Scrum Team and stakeholders through discovery, clarification, and decision-making. Through engaging workshops, the path towards a robust Product Backlog becomes a collective venture, steering the product towards success, Sprint after Sprint. 
How has facilitation by Product Owners transformed your Product Backlog management? Share your thoughts and experiences below!

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