The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Agile Scrum Product Owners

  December 22, 2009

Published in 1989, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, written by Stephen R. Covey has helped millions establish great habits for achieving true interdependent effectiveness in their life and their jobs. This article discusses the 7 habits, framing the habits for highly effective Agile Scrum Product Owners. Below are the 7 habits:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Pre-Requisite Information
This newsletter discusses habits for highly effective Agile Scrum Product Owners. If you are not familiar with Agile or Scrum, please see our newsletters at, specifically those posted February 2008 - September 2008, those newsletters explain Agile Scrum in detail.

Habit 1 - Be Proactive
A Product Owner's goal in any software project is to ensure that the project produces the highest return on investment (ROI) in the shortest amount of time. Below are some ideas for being proactive on Agile software projects:

Communicate Sprint Rules to Management
Since the product owner is responsible for prioritizing the product backlog and is responsible for ROI, the product owner must communicate to his/her upper management that once the sprint begins, they can not push for new features in the sprint unless they are willing to abandon the sprint. Upper management sometimes tries to interfere with the sprint by introducing features not currently in the backlog and derailing team members with busy work that can cause the sprint to fall behind schedule. The product owner must communicate the rules to management and remind them if this behavior happens, the sprint must be aborted and a new sprint must be planned.

Meet Daily
It is important to participate in the Daily Scrum Meeting. This provide full transparency - if you review progress, status and impediments daily, you should never be surprised if tasks begin to slip and you can proactively resolve those to reduce slippage. When meeting daily, hold the meeting first thing in the morning and try to keep the meeting to 30 minutes or less. Here would be a typical agenda for the meeting:

  • Review progress - Do this by analyzing a project burn down chart. This shows how well you are progressing towards completion of the project.
  • Identify slippage - After reviewing progress, identify if anyone is slipping in their tasks and brain storm on helping them catch up.
  • Remove Roadblocks - Ask if anyone is experiencing impediments and roadblocks. Help clear those roadblocks.

Learn More:

Habit 2 - Begin with the End in Mind
Your end goal for a sprint should be to deliver software that could be released to production if needed (high quality is important). Before the sprint begins, you should make a list of success criteria that you judge the sprint on. For example, your success criteria may be that the certain backlog items are complete, has no known defects (or a small number of low severity defects), is reusable, is maintainable, is well documented, is easy to use, etc. By defining the success criteria up front, you can objectively evaluate whether the project met the criteria or not. Below are some tips for ensuring your meet your success criteria at the end:

  • Identify success criteria - Make sure your success criteria is published and agreed upon by the team members.
  • Review success criteria - At least weekly (in one of your Daily Scrum Meetings), review the success criteria. This can include reviewing your defect statistics, test case run history, etc. to allow you to determine if you are progressing towards the success criteria as the sprint continues.
  • Retrospective - Once your project is complete, do a "retrospective" to determine if you met your success criteria.

Learn More:

Habit 3 - Put First Things First
Prioritizing the product backlog is critical. You must apply effort to the most important things first, followed by less important things because this directly affects ROI.

  • Prioritize the Product Backlog - When planning a sprint, it is important to ensure that the most important features are being worked on during the sprint. To do this, prioritize the product backlog as high, medium and low (in terms of how it will impact ROI). Within the high priority items, prioritize the relative importance of those items (1 to 10, with 1 being the most important to ROI).
  • Best Foot Forward - Review the product backlog priorities often. It is OK to change the priorities during the sprint for the items that have not yet begun to ensure that the items being worked on will benefit ROI in the best way.

Habit 4 - Think Win/Win
When dealing with projects, you want to foster a win/win relationship between your team and the client. The alternative to that is:

  • Win/Loss - In this scenario, your team wins but the client loses. This can cause loss of future business with the client.
  • Lost/Win - In this scenario, your team loses but the client wins. This can cause team burnout, financial distress and other issues.
  • Win/Win - This is the scenario you want to foster. In this scenario, both your team and the client wins. How is it done? Normally this centers around the project management pyramid (Features, Time, Cost). To foster a win/win relationship, one of those variables must be flexible. Once your team and client agree to that, it is much easier to make objective decisions about how to plan the project. Here are examples:

    1. More Features / Less Time - The flexible variable is cost, so your client agrees to absorb more costs (you can hire more people).

    2. Cost Savings / Less Time - The flexible variable is features, so less features will be delivered but costs and time will be less.

    3. More Features / More Costs - The flexible variable is time, allowing you to extend the timeline.

Habit 5 - Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
Many of us have a bad habit of blocking out a conversation and not listening because we so desperately want our opinion to be heard. Every team member (Product Owner, Scrum Master, Team Members) has different experiences, different perspectives and motivations.

Before you can solve any problem, it is important to first listen intently and diligently to fully understand the problem. Once you feel you have all the facts, solicit ideas for multiple solutions. Having several options can provide better discussions and allows team members to tweak initial solutions into solutions that are more far reaching and solve the problem in a more direct way. If you disagree with an approach, don't attack the person that offered the approach. Instead, explain based on your past experiences why you think there might be a better approach.

Habit 6 - Synergize
For Agile teams, team collaboration and empowerment is the key to a synergized team. A synergized team is made up of divergent team members that have different strengths, different backgrounds and different perspectives. Encourage these differences but provide your team with
tools that allow you maximize their effectiveness. Highly collaborative teams communicate with each other by sharing their calendars, posting their statuses into discussion forums so that everyone is aware of what the other is doing and accomplishing. These teams keep track of all tasks they work on each day, the number of hours worked, the number of hours remaining and variances to plan. They also share documents that illustrate best practices and produce white papers that teach others what they have learned.

Learn More:

Habit 7 - Sharpen the Saw
Productive product owners see the need to continue honing their skills and love learning new techniques, best practices and approaches. They proactively learn about different ways to improve Agile projects. Below are some links that might be of interest to you:

Helpful Resources
Below are some helpful resources and templates to aid you in developing software solutions: