Friday, June 27, 2014

The Performance Consultant as Product Owner

In Scrum, the internal performance consultant is the Product Owner (PO). Clearly defined in the Scrum Guide ( and elsewhere, the major responsibilities of the Product Owner are to  (1) define the stories (work items) in the backlog, and (2) put them in rank order. The highest ranked items are those that “maximiz[e] the value of the product and the work of the Development Team.”

The “what” is clear and simple. A significant gap in the definition is the “how.” How does one determine what the highest value work is? Consultants, analysts, executives, process improvement professionals all refer to a body of knowledge dedicated to determining what value is for their profession.  This is where the role of the human performance technologist comes in. In the HR/Education field, our consulting skills are focused on strengthening partnerships, viewing problems systemically, focusing on outcomes, and conducting performance and cause analysis. In agile, we still do all of those things, and we know that the principles of human performance technology conflict those of the Agile Manifesto only in nuanced ways. Thus, if we can quantify the value of our support and inventions, that will go a long way towards creating a backlog whose rank order is credible.

Scrum brings three advantages to the internal consultant:
  1. It highlights the importance of doing due diligence on a work item (front end analysis, relationship building) before tossing it to the team. There is a concept in agile called ‘definition of ready’. Each team can create their own definition, but generally speaking, ready means that the team has enough information to do the work; there are no impediments or dependencies in place that would prevent them from doing the work; and they understand what it means to be ‘done’. If the ‘Ready?’ field in the backlog says ‘No’, the team will not (and should not) commit to working on the story.
  2. It compels us to make tough decisions about what should be done first. We can only make defensible decisions based on our analysis of the potential value of the work. This quantification of value is an aid when supplying customers with data about the choices they have to make. (I say ‘they’ because in scrum, the customer decides.) Additionally, scrum has processes built in where the team decides how much work they are going to tackle. Starting from the #1 ranked work item, the team will commit to work until they have reached their typical capacity for an iteration.
  3. The story-writing format, which articulates the audience, the need and the outcome, reinforces the habit of focusing on employee behavior and results.

Herein lies the beauty of agile as applied to HR/Education and other non-software disciplines. In the case of the internal consultant, it provides built-in curbs on any inclination to forget what we are supposed to be doing.

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