Thanks for the Feedback! How the Scrum Values Can Help Product Owners Get Maximum Value
“Thanks for the feedback!” “I’ll put it on the backlog.” Or, the dreaded: “Let’s talk about that offline.”
Product Owners are great at giving non-answers, but is that really the most effective way to build trust and rapport with your stakeholders? The Product Owner’s main job is to maximize the value of their product, and this cannot be done without being able to effectively give and receive meaningful feedback.
Let me tell you a story about how not to give feedback. Several years ago (pre-2020) I was working with a bank and one of the teams was hosting a sprint review. When I got there, it was only me and the Scrum Team in the room In the Sprint Review, they were demoing their home page that showed the user’s current debit card in the corner of the page (this organization gave users the ability to select from multiple debit card formats). One of the stakeholders on the phone piped up and said “While I’m thinking about it, we should put some kind of warning on a card that we’re no longer offering, so that way the user can know when their card expires, they’re going to get a new design. Maybe put a big banner that says ‘retired’ on the card?” After hearing this, the Product Owner of the team muted the call, looked at the Scrum Team in the room and said “That is the dumbest idea I have ever heard.” After getting nods from the group, she unmuted the call and said “That’s a great idea, I’ll add it to the backlog!”
What problems do you see with this interaction? I see a few:
Lack of openness to new ideas and to admit there might be something unknown
Lack of respect to understand the rationale
Lack of courage to communicate what is being thought
So what is feedback? Feedback is part of the communication cycle that is critical for us as humans as we interact with each other. We start by stating a message (either through conversation or product creation), then we invite clarification for the purpose of shared understanding. We then have a conversation that involves perspective sharing of different viewpoints in order to get to a shared course of action.
What often gets lost in this communication cycle is psychological safety. If we do not feel that we can share feedback, we will either placate (agreeing for the sake of avoiding conflict) or vacate (withdraw interest in the conversation for the purpose of self-preservation). In order to gain psychological safety over time, we need to demonstrate the values of openness, respect, and courage.
Openness as a Product Owner means admitting that we only have a limited perspective of the whole. No Product Owner can know everything about the technology their product is using or the market that their product is serving. As such, a Product Owner needs help from people that share different perspective. In one of my other blogs, I talk about the balance of different types of feedback that a Product Owner can gain. Check it out here.
Respect as a Product Owner means that we value the people around us as other human beings. We must invite them in to give feedback and carefully weigh it. In the example above, we can clearly see that this was not a respectful conversation. The challenge that this will prove down the road is lack of trust from that stakeholder when they see that what they requested is not being worked into the product. There is a mismatch of expectations. There are two key techniques that can help a Product Owner with respect: reflective listening and falling in love with the problem. Reflective listening is paraphrasing what the other person said to check for alignment of understanding. Falling in love with the problem is the vision of what the Product Owner has of how their product will help solve a need. By aligning feedback from stakeholders towards that problem statement, it can help conversations be much more respectful.
Courage as a Product Owner means being able to handle disagreements and conflicts in a healthy way. I would venture to guess that the Product Owner above was afraid of conflict, so they took the easy way (at least at the time) out. As Product Owners, we need to be able to have tough conversations in a way that is both caring for people and in a way where we can challenge directly (see Radical Candor). As Suzan Scott says in her book “Fierce Conversations”: “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the course of someone’s life, any one conversation can.” The same is true with our products. If we are unwilling to dig deeper into conversations by voicing disagreements or trying to find our blindspots, we are potentially missing impactful feedback for our products.
So, how does a Product Owner leverage these values to get feedback? I believe the first step is inviting feedback. My colleague Mark Wavle writes an excellent satire on how to make a Sprint Review pointless. He then writes about clever ways to invite feedback. All of these are helpful for Sprint Reviews, but can also be helpful in a broader context of feedback. In the book, “Thanks for the Feedback”, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen share a helpful distinction for feedback. They say that there are three types of feedback:
Appreciation – where someone is looking for affirmation on things they did or are doing well
Evaluation – where people are seeing how they measure up to expectations
Coaching – where people see suggestions for how to improve
By being explicit about what type of feedback you are looking for, a Product Owner can help narrow in on what is most helpful for them in a given circumstance. This can also help a Product Owner model a culture of feedback so that people are working together more effectively
Looking at these practices, as a Product Owner, it is critical to practice the Scrum Values of Openness, Respect, and Courage. This helps build better interactions, which leads to richer perspective sharing, which leads to innovating how we can deliver value to our customers. Next time you are tempted to say “I’ll put it on the backlog”, make sure you are doing it in a way that embodies openness, respect, and courage.