What is a non-negotiable?

Phil Van Sickel

I ran into this term last year during a client interview. They asked me to list my “non-negotiables for agile.” The question took me a little off guard. I understood what they were asking, but I found the question disconcerting. I answered their question, though now I am seeing this pop up more and more at my clients and in blogs. I even find myself using this term.

Ughh! I am vowing here and now never to use this term again! If agile is anything it is about relentless improvement. This means that everything is up for retrospection. If it isn’t working then it must be corrected. By making things the “term that I shall not mention” we make them inviolable and immune from critical scrutiny.

Here are a couple cases in point.

I am sure we all agree that a product owner is a very important role in agile. Without them the team has no direction. The product owner role originated with scrum and is now adopted by most all agile methodologies. I have seen the results of teams that did not have a product owner. They kept moving forward completing their stories. Once a product owner was assigned they discovered they were way off in the weeds. Most of what they had done needed to be tossed. It would be easy to say that a product owner role is my unmentionable term.

Let’s examine this more closely. The real problem was that the teams were not getting feedback.  They were not discovering that their stories were not what the customer wanted.  Without a product owner they still could have had access to the customer.  In this case the customer was internal and even in the program.  Anyone on the team could have taken the initiative to get this feedback. It is certainly more effective to designate someone in this role, but not imperative.

Take pure kanban teams that are working from a queue of maintenance items.  I’ve seen a committee decide the priorities and then the team just works the queue.  QA accepts whether the item works as expected and it moves on to change control for deployment.  No product owner needed in this case at all.

More disconcerting is that I have seen not only the product owner being an unmentionable but the attributes of the product owner being unmentionable.  I’ve seen organizations insist that POs must have certain experience in the business or do not come from IT.  As much as these are highly desirable, why are they a must have?  The ability to learn quickly, to lead and make decisions and to negotiate and listen well are more valuable attributes.  I’ve seen product owners hired off the street who have made wonderful product owners because they had these attributes.

To be fair, the unmentionable term is often used to make a point and stress a critical change the organization must make to become agile.  People want to make sure the organization understands that everyone must step up and be part of the process.  They are doing everything in their power to ensure success of the new teams and the agile transformation.  This is laudable but I think misses a critical element of becoming agile.  That is the need to get started.  The perfect is the enemy of the good.  If the people you have are willing to get started, I say get started and we’ll work through the issues as we go.  It is far easier to steer a moving ship than to get a ship started.

Agile is about using principles and common sense to deal with reality.  It’s about finding the best way to deliver the highest value in the shortest amount of time.  It is about relentless improvement to respond to changing conditions and market pressures.  I may have to go back on my vow to never use the unmentionable term.  If there is anything that I would consider to be non-negotiable, it is regular retrospections on the process. Everything else is a target rich environment for improvement.  To make anything else non-negotiable is to stifle innovation and process improvement.

Phil Van Sickel

Phil is a Senior Project Manager for Summa's Agile Practice. With experience spanning both Agile IT and Lean Manufacturing, Phil helps companies apply agile at scale concepts to optimize their end-to-end product development processes. Phil has worked with businesses from small start-up to multi-national enterprises in the healthcare, manufacturing and financial services sectors.