Product owner in international projects:
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this is how you master the „remote“ challenge
For agile project management in general and international project management in particular, working remotely and from home is a very special challenge due to the decentralised distribution of the team. While video conferencing, collaborative tools and cloud storage were already used by agile project teams before Corona, developments under pandemic conditions in particular show that in a globalised and increasingly interdependent economy, hardly anything works without decentralised working. While this type of collaboration brings many advantages to the individual, such as avoiding long travel routes or greater flexibility, other things, however, pose a great challenge especially for agile teams and especially for product owners. The latter is not only responsible for the work of the development team, but also for achieving the sprint goal. But how do you deal with this as a product owner when, for example, language barriers, time differences or intercultural misunderstandings jeopardise adherence to the time frame and scope?
The Scrum values in the context of international projects
The most important things here are clarity and transparency. Open communication and the necessary empathy to understand the other person’s point of view are indispensable prerequisites for keeping a cool head even in stressful situations. And challenging circumstances, such as changing requirements of the client, lack of quality in the development or the inaccessibility of important stakeholders, occur frequently, especially in international remote projects. Then it is important to create a pleasant and trusting working atmosphere with respect and understanding and to reward good work with the appropriate recognition. Keep in mind that certain subtleties of body language and facial expressions can be lost or easily overlooked remotely. Especially in international projects, the five well-known Scrum values of commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage have a particularly high relevance. And the technical basis must also be right. This means: a comprehensibly formulated product backlog and its clear prioritisation are only two examples of how misunderstandings and a possible misinterpretation of requirements can be prevented. Digital tools can support this, such as the use of the JIRA Scrum Board, which visualises the current development progress, or Confluence, which enables collaborative work on documents. The complementary integration of teamwork apps, such as Microsoft TEAMS, supports the implementation of video conferences, but also the creation of groups and channels that serve the project-related exchange.
The Scrum Master as Facilitator
While in international projects the actual distance does not play a major role due to the tools used, it can also have a negative impact on a purely informal basis. For example, it is not technically decisive whether an employee takes part in a videoconference three rooms away or confers between Hamburg and Munich; but in cooperation with other countries, factors such as the possible time difference and language barriers must be taken into account just as much as diversity, differences in character and intercultural consideration. In addition, there are the individual challenges caused by the Corona pandemic, such as home schooling, closed childcare facilities or concerns about one’s own health. These are all factors that do not affect the project itself, but do have an indirect impact on it if a team does not act as a unit or if the Scrum values already mentioned are disregarded in daily (online) contact. In these cases, individual conflicts between the members of a Scrum team can easily arise, causing difficulties and stagnation and, last but not least, endangering the Sprint goal. Because what is often not considered – even these small interpersonal disagreements easily become bigger obstacles – described in Scrum as „impediments“ – which have to be dealt with offensively. However, for once it is not the product owner but the Scrum Master who is called upon – he acts as the coach of the Scrum team, who as a neutral mediator has the task of ensuring that the team can act free of internal and external disturbances. This is exactly what makes the Scrum Master so valuable for the Product Owner. A good Scrum Master not only acts as a supporter in case of problems in the team, but also as a coach and motivator of the team itself.
As a product owner you also have to be able to say „no“
It is well known that international projects bring with them special challenges – whether in terms of legislation or purely functional aspects. For example, if a company in the e-commerce sector wants to roll out country-specific frontend content in various European markets, not only do the applicable EU standards have to be observed, but also country-specific peculiarities. Different tax rates, local legislation, customs guidelines, security or service regulations are just a few examples of the complexity of such a project. If the individual requirements of the local market are added to this, the product owner must always take into account his most important maxim – maximizing the value of the product. And that can also mean a clear „no“ when it comes to requirements that do not add value to the product. Therefore, prioritization based on value maximization and transparent communication with the individual stakeholders are also indispensable for international remote projects.
Author: Rodica Kobbelt
Managerin | Authorized signatory
Expert in e-commerce | Project Manager | Product Owner