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Our backlog ran dry and the one thing left, was this data-modeling task which involves dealing with huge excel spreadsheets and talking to various stakeholders every day. Neither the team, nor the product owner fully understand what that spread sheet is all about or who exactly the stakeholders are.

What we do know, is that they have a bunch of spreadsheets that need to be filled out. However, the 3 developers on the team are frontend developers. What are we supposed to do? Should we simply do what the PO tells us or should we complain to upper management about the PO letting the backlog run dry and failing to effectively use her resources?

Update: We have a BA / FA on the team and some of us feel that he simply handed off his job to the developers.

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    How did it get into your backlog if even the product owner does not understand? Delete it. – Stephan Bijzitter Jul 7 '16 at 14:04
  • The PO tells us that understanding it is the goal of this sprint. She put a huge visio document containing lots of colors and raw data. We are supposed to figure out what data belongs where and what they are all about. I'm not sure if we should do what she says, ask for more resources or tell the management that the PO is not competent. – Divyanth Jayaraj Jul 7 '16 at 14:17
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    It is a bit of a stretch to characterize that incompetent. If you do go to upper management you might want to tone down the message. – paparazzo Jul 7 '16 at 14:22
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    I started programming because I was a graphic designer and I had no idea what fell into my job description and what didn't. Part of it was I was young and inexperienced, but part is because it was the 90s and the lines weren't clear. Along the way, I've done my share of BA work, technical writing, instructional design, and, of course, graphics and animation. I think all of this makes me a better programmer and a more well-rounded developer. – Amy Blankenship Jul 7 '16 at 15:25
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    It might be useful to define the acronyms explicitly, for people (like me) who haven't seen them before. (From context I'm pretty sure it means "business analyst / financial analyst", but I had no idea just seeing the title link.) – user812786 Jul 7 '16 at 15:32
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This is my second answer to this question, which attacks it from a different angle:

The PO tells us that understanding it [the spreadsheet? data modeling task? story?] is the goal of this sprint.

  • this isn't a proper sprint goal.
  • the PO can't unilaterally set the sprint goal, it's decided by the PO and the team.
  • taking a single story for a whole sprint is ridiculous.
  • taking a story that hasn't been properly groomed is ridiculous.
  • ...

Your Scrum process is broken. This is a problem that can easily be solved by a trained and experienced Scrum Master, who has various options such as delaying the sprint planning and use bug fixing as filler, or to convince the PO to start a Spike.

Making sure what happened does not happen is one of the primary functions of a Scrum Master. It seems like a law of nature that POs will occasionally try to pull stuff like that - that's why the Scrum Master is present in the sprint planning and has the authority to easily stop the PO.

Unfortunately, you say your Scrum Master refuses to take action. No matter how nice they may be, this is their job, even if they don't like it, it's what Scrum Masters get paid to do. Make clear to your Scrum Master that this is an impediment and you expect them to help you in getting rid of the impediment. If they don't, they are the problem. This is from the perspective of someone who used to be a Scrum Master himself a couple years ago.

You can mention this to upper management by focussing on the fact that the stories are not properly prepared. Well prepared stories are understood by the team, estimated by the team, and small enough that the largest story should normally take less than half of the sprint's capacity. Don't assign blame to the PO, because competent upper management will realize that this is a Scrum Master issue. We have to assume you have competent upper management, because otherwise you're screwed, seeing how lower management isn't competent yet.

  • My scrum master says "it is what it is" and "at least you get a paycheck" and says there's nothing we can do about it. He's asking us to see the positive side of things, like gaining new experiences, meeting new people etc. He's open to us complaining to our managers as long as we have a suggested solution also. – Divyanth Jayaraj Jul 7 '16 at 15:18
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You should eagerly seize the opportunity to learn more about the business side and develop personal connections with the stakeholders. You'll probably be able to massively streamline or automate the process and gain kudos too.

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First off, nobody will ever care much about your official job description. If a task is outside of your official job description it often still makes sense to do the job at hand.

Protesting about doing a job that's outside your job description will give off a negative impression, and you have to decide if that's worth it. One might draw the line at having to scrub toilets, but I can see circumstances where even that might be acceptable to me (cleaning lady is sick, small office, good salary, and I prefer having clean toilets to not having clean toilets).

Instead use the opportunity to learn, and let your Scrum Master and PO know that you'd prefer better groomed stories in the future. If this happens often in the future and you generally dislike the kind of work that gets your way, talk to your line manager.

If the PO is generally incompetent and is continuously harming your ability to work properly, that requires a different approach but that's outside the scope of this question.


You should not complain to upper management about the PO letting the backlog run dry. It's their job to already know that. If anything you'd need to talk to upper upper management about upper management not even looking at the backlogs of their POs.

  • +1 because I much prefer having people on my team who are more focused on getting the job done than on who is responsible for what parts of it. Do what needs doing to the best of your ability, and after the job is done discuss how things could have been handled better at the post-mortem/retrospective or whatever you call that meeting. – ColleenV parted ways Jul 8 '16 at 17:17
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"Other duties as assigned" is in almost every employment contract. If it is assigned to you by your manager, it's part of your job until your manager says it isn't.

If anyone other than your manager tries to assign work to you, you are entitled to say "please make that request through my manager, so he can balance it against the department's other commitments."

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