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Shhhhh. Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet!

ShhBeVewy1Hunting the Elusive Agile Customer

I can’t help being a fan of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters. One of my favorites is Elmer Fudd, who is inspiring me for this post. Along with attendees from a workshop I just delivered in Dallas.

I deliver quite a few agile workshops. There are some questions that inevitably come up in each session-no matter what the workshop topic. One of these is related to the agile customer, call them the product owner or stakeholder. No matter what we call them, the question always surfaces around how to better involve or engage the agile customer in the activities of the team as they develop working software.

There seems to be a tendency for them to want to ask for a deliverable in the beginning of a sprint and then walk away until the end. Imagine that? Apparently many teams have lost sight of their customers and are looking for ways to inspire them to return. To that end, I offer eight ways to engage your agile product owner

  1. Deliver What They Ask for
    Well duh, this one isn’t that insightful. I disagree. I think as a discipline we more often than not deliver what we think they need. Instead, we need to listen deeply to our customer and deliver what they want…and perhaps a wee bit more. We show them that we care about their business needs and are willing to be servants to their perspective-delivering high value features. We also show them that we are active consumers of their feedback-leading toward real-time adjustments in functionality.
  2. Find a Good Example and Leverage it
    They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think a solid example of what a good agile product owner “looks like” is worth a great deal more. Find a PO in your organization that is performing well in the role and try to “tag team” yours with them. Use their practices and approaches as examples, but be careful to not turn it into an unhealthy competition. Even encourage your product owner to attend the other team’s activities. For example, backlog grooming or sprint demo preparation and delivery as a means of gaining new ideas and approaches.
  3. Ask, Show, then Ask Again…and Again!
    Engaging the customer in the incremental development of high priority features can literally be intoxicating. Perhaps not at first, but as you continue to deliver on agility’s promise of high value first, it will naturally draw them into the development tempo and rhythm of the team. So keep asking them to evaluate your progress to-date in narrowing down to story acceptance. And always keep your eye on the goal for each sprint or iteration from a business perspective.
  4. The Great Reveal
    Don’t forget the power of the sprint demo or review. Gaining a broad audience, showing working software and gaining feedback in a transparent forum is not only exciting, it’s efficient too. Remind your customer about the “Great Reveal” coming at the end of the sprint and how you need their engagement to make it successful. In fact, remind them that they have a responsibility to help conduct the preparation for and delivery of the review.
  5. Don’t Forget, it’s Their JOB
    Some of my earlier suggestions are simply using the properties of agile teams to draw the customer into engaging with the team. It’s the WIIFM part. But there’s another reason for them to engage; it’s their job and they have a responsibility because they’re a member of the team too. Don’t forget about the “responsibility card,” because every member of an agile team needs to effectively engage with their team.
  6. Demonstrate the Team’s Creativity
    One of the hidden treasures of a well formed agile team is that they don’t simply deliver on what you asked for. They’re not by-rote execution focused. Instead, they’re the creative partner of the product owner in solving the challenges their customers are facing. They understand the root customer needs and work very hard to deliver creative solutions that solve their problem. They’re not simply checking the box on a requirement. This creativity, when exhibited, will draw the customer towards you because you are solving their problems, their real problems…creatively.
  7. The Power of Being a TEAM
    Sometimes the Customer is too busy, or on the road, or engaged with more outwardly facing work. What to do here? Whine, complain? No! Help your team member. Work with them in preparation for their trip to ensure you have a surrogate in place for engagement. Pre-vet your ideas with them en masse and gain their early, condensed feedback. Prepare to remote them in for reviews at inconvenient off-hour times. In short, do everything you can to enable their engagement by taking joint ownership.
  8. Last, but Certainly Not Least, Leverage Your Retrospective
    I saved a goodie for last!. Each sprint’s retrospective is the place to discuss team improvement around results, process, approaches, issues, challenges, etc. It is a safe place, reserved just for the team, to surface their biggest challenges and to discuss ways and means for facing and resolving them. Move relentlessly  towards delivering high value work in a truly agile way. If you’re having engagement challenges with your customer, engage them in the retrospective. Don’t make it personal, instead speak to the team impacts and as a team brainstorm alternatives for improvement.

A fundamental success criterion for successful agile adoption is having engaged customers and product owners. Based on my informal polling when I’m teaching and coaching, we still have a huge challenge in successfully engaging customers with their teams.

I hope these ideas have helped in spurring ideas for how you can create more cohesive teams that draw their customers into the fray, making them a strong part of every iteration and each incremental release. If you have your own practices that have helped improve customer engagement, please add them to this post as a comment. I hope to get some great ideas!

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