Product Owner Dilemma — Backlog Refinements from Hell

Do you feel like you have to put up a fight in your next refinement session? Have you ever left a refinement session with disappointment? Have you ever felt you went in to go two steps forward but end up going 5 steps backwards? Is there conflict and dispute all the time every week?

When entering your refinement sessions feels like Fight Club

I used to dread refinement sessions. Always scrambling user stories an hour before, defend them during the session, then leaving with many actions to improve the stories you presented. Here is my survival guide to Refinement meetings.

Set Expectations

One of the biggest mistakes in any business is when you and your colleague have misaligned expectations of your role. This is where the conflict occurs. If you are frustrated that the incorrect outcome or the wrong discussions happen. Set expectations that are aligned.

  1. Create guidelines and principles for your refinement meetings
  2. Understand the roles in the session
  3. Remind people the expected outcome for the sessions

After some disastrous meetings, I met with my Scrum Master and together we created a guideline that we ensured every team member agreed to. My top guidelines were:

  • Form your opinions as a question.
  • If a question goes unanswered, record it and assign it.
  • Raise your hand instead of interrupting people

Be prepared

As I mentioned, I used to prepare an hour before the refinement sessions. This was my biggest mistake. Even if the stories were perfectly written, I will always be challenged.

Different techniques I’ve used in the past are:

  • Set a goal for each refinement. For example, “Kick off a new team goal and identify risks” or “Let’s review a set of stories for ambiguity” or “Let’s estimate upcoming stories”.
  • Form the “Three Amigos” to write, review and discover stories. Using a developer and QA you can ensure the story is written in a common language, that considers value, feasibility and quality, and will prepare part of the team on what is coming up.
  • Share your goal and stories a few days before.

Don’t be the facilitator

I feel into this trap every time. Hopefully when setting the roles of a refinement session the Product Owner (PO) is not the facilitator. Some believe that this is the PO’s meeting, to ensure we deliver the stories in the next sprint. However, there are two common misconceptions:

  1. The PO knows what needs to be done next and why, but the team needs to figure out how to achieve it. The meeting is in fact the responsibility of both the PO and the team.
  2. You cannot facilitate a meeting when you are participating. It is hard to take that step back and know when to steer the session or include other members.

Be controversial

If there are still issues with refinement then something disruptive is needed. In a retrospective where the refinement meetings were a pain for the whole team, we decided to do something controversial or something drastically different since it cannot get worse.

Example of controversial changes with refinement I used:

  • Time-box story estimation. We saw a pattern with story point poker. After 5 minutes we did estimations which ranged from 3 to 8 (average 5). After a 30 minute discussion and disputes the last estimations were between 3–5 (average 5).
  • Drastically change estimation. Moving to t-shirt sizes is usual. We decided not to use estimates and only object if the story is too big, which triggers a story split.
  • Sole responsibility of the backlog was on the PO. This is too much for one person. We assigned Story Owners or Feature Owners who would introduce the story/feature, answer any questions (with the PO present) and investigate solutions. This helped empowerment of the team and ensure the PO focusses on outcome .

Feel free to share your Refinement Hells and your team’s resolution.

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