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Playing the Product Owner Value Game

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The product owner value game is a card game for teams. The objective of the game is to deliver as much value as possible. Teams learn to prioritize backlogs, plan iterations, and deliver results. The game helps teams to talk about agile principles, and exchange experiences.

It is a crowd sourced game, supported by Agile Holland (a Dutch agile community), using a community project. The aim of the Product Owner Game project was to co-create a serious game for product owners and people who work with product owners to learn agile practices and develop their skills.

At the XP Days Benelux 2014 conference Dajo Breddels and Paul Kuijten facilitated a workshop where people played the product owner value game.

InfoQ interviewed Breddels and Kuijten about the development of the product owner game, the product owner role and becoming value driven, playing the game and joining the community project.

InfoQ: The journey of the product owner game started a couple of years ago. Can you tell us how it all began and what has happened with the game over time?

Kuijten: The Kuzidi collective that we were part of at the time concluded that there was little resources available to help Product Owners be the best Product Owner they can be. Therefore, we decided to initiate the creation of a game to help drive home some key learning points for Product Owners. We started out by collecting learning objectives everywhere we went, off- and on-line. There was voting and prioritizing going on after that. Once we had the learning objectives, we went into a game design phase. Some community events were held, and people had great time designing games that fitted the learning objectives. We’ve gotten a ton of ideas from those sessions. We also discovered that it takes a lot of effort and dedication to build community. There are multiple games that need to be developed. We took one of the ideas and developed it further. This is the Product Owner Value Game. It rocks!

InfoQ: What can people learn when they play the product owner game?

Breddels: This game uses two different ways to teach people:

The first is through the game mechanics that we designed in the game. The game is designed to learn focusing on business value as soon as possible and do smart refinement. Why would you refine features and user stories that you know are less promising than other features and user stories? People are becoming used to develop only the highest value user stories, why should this be different for refinement. Refinement itself also costs time and money so be smart with it.

The second is by facilitated play. We strongly believe in facilitating Agile Games. As a coach or scrum master, you can really add value to the game. Every time we played the game people had valuable discussions. An example: We developed the game as simple as possible, so it’s easy to explain and play. For instance, this means there are no user stories that are depending on each other in the game. Most of the time someone will point out that in he/she has those user stories in real life. This gives the facilitator a good opportunity to discuss this topic. Like: What is the downside of having those dependencies, can we work around them, what are we going to do when we encounter them in the future.

Kuijten: The key learning objectives are related to continuous Product Backlog refinement, and the benefits it can bring. You will deliver most value in the game if you continuously refine, and balance this with delivery of product backlog items, taking context into account.

InfoQ: What makes the role of the product owner so important in agile?

Kuijten: If you look at the way Scrum describes the role, it is the mini-CEO of the product. As such, you need a good CEO for your product right? It is the main person accountable for the benefits a product brings to an organization. So yes, the role is super-important.

InfoQ: My impression is that the product owner role can be challenging. It’s often difficult to find good product owners. Do you see the same?

Kuijten: The Product Owner role certainly is challenging. If you have a team that delivers, in a complex environment, you have your work cut out for you.

However, I don’t think it is hard to find good Product Owners. We have tons and tons of great people working in the organizations that are doing agile software development. It’s much more a systemic issue.

Is the "business" side of the organization well connected with agile and do they understand how they can be successful through product ownership? Are we really moving decision-making authority to the work floor?

The much needed combination of time, product knowledge and mandate is still much too rare in Product Owners

Breddels: I think it’s a challenging role, which needs a lot of different skills. You need enough business knowledge to know what’s going on, but at the same time you need enough distance so you are not to attached to a specific solution, which will hinder good business decision making. You need the ability to talk the language of both the development team as well as the business and clients. So not everybody will qualify. But when I’m coaching big organizations I can always find multiple persons who will fit this role. The big issue here is that most of these persons already have other roles, which have a higher status in the organization than the P.O. role. A good example of this is the fact that I saw organizations which were looking to hire external P.O.’s but are not willing to pay more that 80 euro an hour (the same as an analyst), while they are paying over 120 euro for a Project Manager.

InfoQ: One of the aims of the product owner game is "helping Product Owners to become more value-driven". Can you elaborate what you mean with value driven?

Kuijten: It’s in the agile manifesto: "Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software." If this is your highest priority, how will you do "valuable"? Being value-driven to me is continuously looking at the impact of what you are doing, at a much lower granularity than a huge business case for a project. It means expressing that value, and initiating the dialogue with all stakeholders based on value. Value is often called "business" value, as if there is any other kind of value. We might as well just call it value, as it is the only thing there is in organizations.

Summarizing, being value-driven means arriving at a shared understanding of value, having a wide enough perspective on value, and using value to determine what you’ll do next.

InfoQ: At the XP Days Benelux 2014 you facilitated a workshop where people played the product owner game. Can you share some of the learnings that the attendants got out of it?

Breddels: On every card in the game we put the expected value. One of the attendants said: "Yeah, but if you know the business value it’s rather easy." Brilliant!

Kuijten: First of all, people reported it was fun! That helps with the learning. This was an audience of experienced agile coaches and practitioners, so the learning differs from when you play with a bunch of product owners. So next to lessons related to continuous refinement and strategies for maximum value delivery, the audience took home the power of facilitated gameplay. An excellent means of guided discovery. We are great fans of playing games, both for doing your everyday work, and for facilitating learning and discovery. I once heard someone state that work is like a poorly designed game that we can improve a lot. It really resonated, and basically we’ve been changing the worklife game engine rules since we started doing agile coaching.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about the game and want to play it, how can they join the community project?

Kuijten and Breddels: We welcome people to help co-develop the other game engines we have in alpha. Furthermore, if you want the game cards and rules, send an email to, and we will send you the pdf’s. We now have people asking us to come play at their conference, so you might be able to play with us in 2015.

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