Welcome to the first of two blogs from Céara O’Connor showcasing how an IBM Social Program Management development team has adopted Product Kata when creating and managing their product backlog.
The Backlog problem
Agile Teams, like ours in Social Program Management, are familiar with working with a Backlog of Defects, Enhancements, Stories, Tasks and Activities, or in the simplest terms, a list of all things that need to be done within the project or area. The Product Owner works with Stakeholders such as the TPM (Technical Product Manager) and Architect to prioritise the backlog and identify new items that need to be added to it. The Product Backlog is refined when the team prepare stories for sprint planning. This is when additional information is added to the story, gaps in the details or knowledge relating to the stories are identified, the story is split or new stories, and tasks or activities are identified and created.
Earlier this year, when the Social Program Management Open API team formed, one of our challenges was that as a newly formed team, we didn’t have a backlog to prioritise initially. We were going through a phase of research and learning. Following this phase, we had a validated use case to implement. We weren’t sure where to start but we knew we needed to hit the ground running.
We needed to create a backlog specific to the use case that we were working on, but which also considered the context of open domain APIs and our wider team vision to challenge ourselves to design APIs for re-use across multiple use cases. This differed subtly to the more traditionally focused backlogs we were used to. We wanted to do more than just satisfy the use case. We wanted to use the opportunity to continue to establish a methodology and best practices for developing Open APIs in Social Program Management. We also wanted to ensure that we were aligned with the overall Social Program Management mission.
The Product Kata
“The Product Kata is the process by which we uncover the right solutions to build. It’s a systematic way that teaches product managers to approach building products from a problem-solving standpoint. The Product Kata helps product people form incredibly impactful habits. Doing it over and over again, exactly like a martial arts kata, ingrains the process in your brain. After practicing for a while, this pattern of thought becomes second nature.”
Melissa Perri Escaping the Build Trap, USA, O’Reilly, 2018
I had attended the Industry Product Management conference, at which I had the opportunity to listen to a lot of Product experts share their knowledge and experiences. One of the speakers, Melissa Perri spoke about the Product Kata, a technique that I thought would help us with backlog creation and maintenance. In fact, she had written a book, Escaping the Build Trap (quoted above), that included a chapter on the technique. I had the chance to speak with Melissa about it. On my return, I proposed this technique to the team and as we love to try new things, we decided to give it a go. We read the book and started to think about how we could apply this technique in the context of the work the Open API team were doing- creating a backlog and working within an agile working environment.
Kata is a four-step pattern for product management (see figure 1) to help teams align around a goal and to build the right product. It helps with establishing target conditions and then working iteratively through obstacles by learning from them and adapting based on what’s being learned. It helps teams to step back and make sure they are building the right thing, before they jump into development. To guide us, we ask the following questions:
- What is the goal?
- Where are we now in relation to that goal?
- What is the biggest problem or obstacle standing in the way of reaching that goal?
- How do I try to solve that problem…what is the one step that we can take?
- What do I expect to happen (hypothesis)?
- What actually happened, and what did we learn?
Figure 1: The four step Kata pattern
What I really like about the Kata is that it ensures that we are aligned from an organisational point of view. There is no value to what we are doing unless it fits into the overall organisational strategy. The Kata also helps direct focus on the problem rather than going directly to the solution. It advocates taking a step back and breaking down what we do know and also what we need to know at each iteration, continuing until the best outcome is reached. Through this process, as a team, identifying tasks and activities at each iteration which will feed the backlog.
Next time: How we used the Kata pattern to establish our backlog.