Full-Day Product Owner Simulation Exercise

This simulation exercise rests on the idea that people learn a lot better by doing something than by talking about it.  My Product Owner classes were getting great reviews, but I really felt like there was something missing compared to my ScrumMaster classes which have a full-day ScrumMaster simulation exercise.  It took a little while to figure it out, but this article describes in detail how I do the simulation for the Product Owner class.  I’m sure it will evolve and get refined from here since I have only used the simulation twice so far.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

Pre-requisites: None!  No prior Scrum or Agile knowledge or experience required.

Audience: Product Owners, Business Analysts, Project Managers, Product Managers and other people responsible for business results and who interact with a Scrum team.

Timing: This simulation takes at least 7 classroom hours.  I usually run it from 8:30am to 5:00pm with a one hour lunch break and two 15 minute breaks during the day.

Materials Needed:

  • Coloured pencils and/or coloured markers
  • Black Sharpie fine-point markers
  • Scissors
  • Rulers
  • Scotch tape and/or glue stick
  • Blank white printer paper
  • Pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners
  • Blank white 4×6 and 3×5 note cards
  • Blank white box (e.g. a shirt box from U-Line)
  • Planning Game cards (email me if you want a bunch for free!)

Room Setup: Round tables with 4 to 6 chairs at each table.  Materials distributed to each table.

Agenda (with facilitator’s notes):

  • Lecture: Simulation Overview, Backlog Preparation and Refinement
    The purpose of the overall simulation is to learn to create a good Product Backlog in preparation for a Scrum team’s first Sprint. Review the agenda with participants.
  • Exercise: Great Products and their Vision
    5 minutes – at table groups, think about the consumer products you know and use often.  How are those products marketed and sold?  How are they presented?  How do you decide to use that product vs. a competitive product?
  • Discussion: What Makes a Great Product Vision?
    Ask for the group to brainstorm the qualities of a great product vision.  Ensure that “simplicity”, “urgency”, and “emotion” are all mentioned.  (Great reference: “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath.)
  • Discussion: Choosing a Product for the Simulation
    Give participants four product options (suggested options: “Doggy dating web site”, “iPad app for plastic surgeons”, “POS for food trucks with social features”, or come up with your own app idea).  A table group must agree to one of the options.  They will stick with this product for the remainder of the simulation.  5 minutes to decide (usually takes much less).
  • Part 1: Product Vision
    • Exercise: Product Vision Statement
      5 minutes – attempt to craft a brief, compelling product vision statement that communicates “simplicity”, “urgency” and “emotion”.
    • Lecture: Innovation Games – Product Box
      Product Box Handout [PDF]
      Talk about the need for a compelling vision as a pre-requisite for high-performance teams, and a way to decide what is in vs. out of a Product Backlog.  Introduce “Product Box” as a way to do market research in an Agile compatible way (collaborative, light documentation, quick).  Talk about the pattern of a product box: front to attract, back to showcase, sides to deal with objections.  Use of online resources / web research is allowed but should not dominate the exercise.
    • Exercise: Building Your Product
      30 minutes, with warnings at 15 minutes and 5 minutes remaining.  Ensure that by 10 minutes in, the group has actually started using the craft supplies and isn’t just talking.
    • Exercise: Presenting Your Product
      5 minutes – give additional time to allow groups to prepare for a trade show (in their market) presentation where other groups (or yourself) will role-play sceptical trade show participants.
    • Exercise: Product Vision Statement Reprise
      5 minutes – attempt to craft a brief, compelling product vision statement that communicates “simplicity”, “urgency” and “emotion”.
    • Discussion: Debrief
  • Part 2: Product Users
    • Handout: User Categories
    • Lecture: User Categories
      Describe “end users”, “customers” and “admin users” as the three major categories.  Users can be in hierarchies where a general user type may have two or more specific sub-types.
    • Exercise: Identifying Users
      10 minutes.  One user of each main type (end, admin and cust), at least 5 users in total.  More is okay.
    • Lecture: Personas, Usability and Empathy
      Introduce Persona concept (great reference: “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper).  Usability as part of Agile, not separate (i.e. “working software”).  Identifying personas as a way to build empathy from the development team to the end users/customers.
    • Exercise: Generate a Persona
      10 minutes.  Choose a primary user.  Generate name, age, background story, and relationship to product.  Don’t worry about an image.  Try to be specific and write the background so it emphasizes the concept of empathy.
  • Part 3: User Stories
    • Handout: User Stories [PDF]
    • Lecture: Writing Effective User Stories
      Use the example “As a Job Seeker, I can upload my resume, so that I get a job.”  Explain the user story template based on the handout.  Emphasize the idea of end user functionality.  Explain user stories as an important tool, but optional part of Scrum.
    • Exercise: Create User Stories
      Goal: 20 user stories for each group’s product, at least two user stories for each type of user, all done in 20 minutes.  User Stories must be written on 3×5 note cards with a 2cm blank area on right side of each card.  The groups start by writing one or two User Stories together, then divide and conquer to create the rest.  At the end of the 20 minutes, there is a brief amount of time allocated to making sure there are no duplicated “features” described.
    • Discussion: Review User Stories
      Workshop examples from each group.  Ensure that the “benefit” section of each story does not contain a feature.  Possibly discuss the three parts of a User Story as “who”, “what” and “why”.  The benefit is usually related to time, money or happiness and connects the User Story to the product vision.
    • Handout: User Story Splitting [PDF]
    • Lecture: Splitting User Stories
      Go through each of the “top” six splitting methods.  Provide simple examples where the group needs help.  E.g. error conditions as an example of splitting by business logic.
    • Exercise: Split Some
      Goal: result in at least 30 user stories, use each of the top six splitting methods at least once, give 15 minutes.
    • Discussion: Review Splitting
  • Part 4: Estimation and Financial Modelling
    • Lecture: Effort, Value and ROI
      Customers and business stakeholders estimate value, Scrum team members estimate effort, and ROI is the calculation of the ration of value over effort.  Discuss examples of ordering based on these ratios, e.g. 8/2 vs. 8/4 and 200/20 vs. 20/2.
    • Handout: The Bucket System
    • Lecture: The Bucket System
      Review process based on handout.
    • Exercise: Estimating Business Value
      10 minutes.  Goal: all user stories get a business value estimate written in the top right-hand corner of the user story card.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Bucket System
    • Handout: The Planning Game
    • Lecture: The Planning Game
    • Exercise: Estimating Effort
      20 minutes. Goal: estimate 3 user stories using the Planning Game.  Use the Bucket System to estimate the remainder with the ones already estimated as the reference points.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Planning Game
    • Handout: Methods of Ordering the Product Backlog
    • Lecture: Ordering a Product Backlog
      Review ROI as a method to order the PBIs.  Reminder that the Product Owner has final authority and can ignore the estimates in deciding on the order.
    • Exercise: Calculating ROI and Ordering
      5 minutes.  Just simple divide-and-conquer calculations of business value divided by effort for all the user stories.
    • Lecture: Simulation Wrap-Up – Where Does This Fit?
      Reminder of the idea of creating an initial Product Backlog that is “good enough” to start the first Sprint.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

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The Three Fundamental Principles of Agile Estimation – The Third One Will Surprise You!

You probably already use an Agile Estimation technique such as the Planning Game or the Bucket System, but surprisingly few people understand the underlying principles of Agile Estimation.  This lack of understanding often causes confusion or stress for the people who try to use Agile Estimation techniques.  The discrepancy between traditional estimation techniques and Agile techniques is large and it is hard to bridge that mental gap without understanding the principles involved.  There are three fundamental principles of Agile estimation:

Principle One: Collaborative

Agile estimation methods are collaborative.  This means that multiple people work together to arrive at estimates for work in an Agile project or product development effort.  Traditional estimation techniques (such as those related to bottom-up or top-down) tend to focus on individuals estimating the work that they are responsible for doing and “trusting” those individual estimates.  Collaborative estimation means that most estimation is done by people in formally facilitated meetings where people are present in-person.

Collaborative techniques are generally used where there is some expectation that multiple minds are better than a single mind in discovering some new knowledge or solving a problem.  Teamwork and groupwork are based on this concept.  This idea of collaboration for problem solving is also applied to Agile Estimation and it has some interesting ramifications.

The most radical consequence of collaborative estimation methods is that there is no possibility to trace a particular estimate for a particular item to a particular individual person.  This lack of traceability is important to create a sense of safety on the part of participants in the estimation effort.  This safety is necessary to allow participants to be fully honest about estimates even if those estimates conflict with expectations of powerful stakeholders.  Another way of stating this principle is that no individual can be punished for a bad estimate.

Many Agile estimation techniques take this principle beyond just mere collaboration to the level of consensus-building techniques where everyone in a group doing estimation work must agree on the final estimate for each and every item being estimated.  This strengthens the idea of safety to the point where no participant in an estimation effort can ever say “I didn’t agree with that” and thereby leave other participants “on the hook” for a bad estimate.

Principle Two: Relative Estimation

Imagine you are shown a glass bottle with some water in it.  You can see the water sloshing around.  Someone asks you, “how much water is in the bottle?”  You might, at first, think about the overall size of the bottle and respond by saying “it’s 1/3 full.”  Or, if asked to provide a measure in units like millilitres or fluid ounces, you might mentally compare what you see in front of you to some container (e.g. a measuring cup) where you know the quantity.  In both cases, you are doing a relative estimate of the amount of water in the bottle.  You are comparing the amount of water to a known quantity.

Imagine a counter-example: someone walks up to you with a red pen ask asks you “what is the wavelength of the light being reflected from this red ink?”  If you are like most people, you have probably forgotten (if you ever knew) the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum.  You have no basis for comparison.  You might take a wild guess, but it is just that.  Going back to our relative measure, you might be able to easily say if it is darker or lighter than another red colour, or you might even be able to tell what hue of red it is.  But those cases are, again, relying on our inherent ability to see relative differences.

So instead of ignoring this capacity, in Agile estimation techniques, we leverage it.  When estimating effort, we start by setting a clear baseline for what we are comparing: another piece of work.  The baseline piece of work is often given an “estimate” that is arbitrary and in some non-standard units.  For example, it is common to use “points” when estimating the effort for Product Backlog Items.

When doing relative estimates it is very important to ensure we are comparing “apples to apples”.  Both the piece of work to be estimated and the comparison piece should both be work items that are not yet done!  If you have already completed one of the pieces of work, you have prior knowledge that you don’t have for the work to be estimated.

This last point is subtle, but important.  If you have already done something, you know much more about it.  If you try to compare to something you haven’t yet done, you will be tempted to assume that the two things will be more similar than they may be when you actually get to work on it.  By comparing two pieces of work that you have not yet done, you become much more conscious of the risks of comparing, and that consciousness will help you make better relative estimates.

It is important to note that one side advantage of using relative units for estimation is that it makes it much more difficult to use estimates as a baseline for either measuring performance or for tracking schedule variance, both of which are essentially meaningless in a good Agile environment (which should be almost entirely results-oriented).

Principle Three: Fast

In Agile estimation we don’t care (!!!) about accuracy nor about precision of estimates.  Whoa!  Why is that?  Because estimation is waste.  You can’t sell estimates, and estimates don’t affect the “form, fit or function” of the thing you’re building.  Therefore, both Agile and Lean concur: do your utmost to eliminate that waste.  There are actually lots of Agile practitioners who think estimates are evil (and they have some good arguments!)

In order to do Agile estimation in a maximally non-evil way, we need to make estimation fast!  Really fast!!!  Many of the Agile estimation techniques allow you to estimate a product release schedule lasting as much as a year in just a few hours given a reasonably well-crafted Product Backlog.

There are really only two modestly good reasons for doing estimation in an Agile project or product:

  1. Estimates provide simplified information to the Product Owner to allow him/her to make sure the Product Backlog is ready for the next Sprint (ordered, refined).
  2. Estimates allow stakeholders, including the team doing the work, to generate high-level common understanding and expectations without dwelling on details.

As a business stakeholder, one can do a simple mental exercise.  Ask yourself, “how much money would I be willing to spend to accomplish those two objectives?”  Whatever your answer, I hope that it is a very small amount compared to what you are willing to spend on getting results.  If not, perhaps you haven’t really embraced the Agile mindset yet where “the primary measure of progress is working software” (the Agile Manifesto).

Bonus Principle: We Suck at Estimating

Most people doing estimation in traditional project management try to measure in units like person-days or dollars.  There is no doubt that these units are useful if you can get good estimates.  However, most of the people doing estimation are fundamentally and irredeemably bad at it.  How do I know?  Because they are not wealthy… and have thereby proven that they cannot predict the future.  If you can predict the future, even just in limited circumstances (like estimating effort or revenue), you can leverage that to generate almost untold wealth.  Given that, it is fruitless and wasteful to try to get better at estimating.  Instead, the principles of Agile estimation help us focus our attention on the right things: collaboration, comparative estimates and doing them fast so we can get to the real work, and most importantly: delivering valuable results now.  Understanding these principles helps teams overcome many of the struggles they have in using Agile estimation techniques.

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Agile Estimation with the Bucket System

Estimation – The Bucket System [pdf] – printable reference version of this article.

The “Bucket System” is a way to do estimation of large numbers of items with a small to medium sized group of people, and to do it quickly.  The Bucket System has the following qualities which make it particularly suitable for use in Agile environments:

  • It’s fast!  A couple hundred items can be estimated in as little time as one hour.
  • It’s collaborative.  Everyone in a group participates roughly equally.
  • It provides relative results not absolute estimates (points vs. hours).
  • The results are not traceable to individuals and so it encourages group accountability.
  • Works with teams to estimate effort or with stakeholders to estimate value.

BucketSystem3

The Bucket System of estimation works as follows:

  1. Set up the physical environment as per the diagram below.  Ensure that all the items to be estimated are written on cards.
  2. Choose an item at random from the collection.  Read it to the group.  Place it in the “8” bucket.  This item is our first reference item.
  3. Choose another item at random from the collection.  Read it to the group.  The group discusses its relative position on the scale.  Once consensus has been reached, put the item in the appropriate bucket.
  4. Choose a third item at random and, after discussion and consensus is reached, place it in the appropriate bucket.
  5. If the random items have clearly skewed the scale towards one end or the other, re-scale the items (e.g. if the first item is actually very small and should be in the “1” bucket).
  6. Divide and conquer.  Allocate all the remaining items equally to all the participants.  Each participant places items on the scale without discussion with other participants.   If a person has an item that they truly do not understand, then that item can be offered to someone else.
  7. Sanity check!  Everyone quietly reviews the items on the scale.  If a participant finds an item that they believe is out of place, they are welcome to bring it to the attention of the group.  The group then discusses it until consensus is reached and it is placed in one of the buckets.
  8. Write the bucket numbers on the cards so that the estimates are recorded.

Bucket SystemSome important points to consider:

  • Multiple items can be in the same bucket.
  • Items cannot be placed “between” buckets to represent a more precise estimate.
  • If the distribution of the items is skewed to either end of the scale, then during the sanity check step the group should also discuss if the items can and should be spread out more evenly along the scale.  If so, then the group does it collectively.
  • The facilitator should watch to make sure that no one moves items that have already been placed until the “sanity check” step.
  • The division of items among participants does not need to be exactly equal – don’t worry about “dealing” out the items.  Instead, just divide them up roughly.
  • If the “divide and conquer” stage has one or two people working very slowly through their items, it is acceptable to suggest that they share their remaining items with people who are already finished.
  • It is not acceptable for an individual to completely abstain from the process.  If someone desires to abstain, they should be counselled that this means they will not have any future say in the estimates.
  • During the “divide and conquer” stage it is critical that absolute silence is maintained.  In particular, there should be no bilateral discussion of items.  This is to protect the anonymity of individuals placing items as much as possible.

The Bucket System

 

The bucket system is a good alternative estimation method to try instead of Planning Poker.  It is much faster than Planning Poker and still gets reasonable results.

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