One of the most challenging concepts in Agile for companies (Product Owners) is the decision on what to focus on for upcoming product deliveries. As I share in my Product Owner (CSPO) workshops, the PO role most difficult (and most important) role in Scrum – precisely because of the impossible puzzle of delivering the value requested across the diverse stakeholder pool. There is no silver bullet, no “correct” answer , and no way to deliver all of the value to all of the stakeholders – we can only seek to find an optimum value. How?

The Backstory – A client request

A client recently inquired on how to track the myriad of customer requests, especially when the requests keep coming in and they have chosen NOT to work on them. While it may seem easy to keep track of the kept requests (put them in the backlog) what about keeping track of all of the rejected requests – from months and years back? And how do you deal with the backlog when the requests become unruly to manage (too many)?

This request reminded me of one of my favorite clients to work with – They had a similar challenge, as I assume many of your reading this post do – whether in product development or internal IT applications. As did with most of their internal needs, not only did they find and hone a solution that worked for them, they imbedded it into their product because they realized that their clients had the same needs – enter Idea Exchange.

Idea Exchange – an Agile values-based approach

A typical approach to managing customer requests is to track them in an internal tool. That means you are fully responsible for entering, tracking, prioritizing, and deciding on what to work on – that is a LOT of work and a GREAT responsibility. It is also not very agile. Two agile values that come to the forefront which relate to this problem are transparency and customer collaboration.

How about rather than you owning, managing and deciding what to prioritize in your product, you make it transparent and better engage your customers to help you? Enter Idea Exchange – an online market for new ideas where customers can interact with you and with each other in guiding your priorities.

In an Idea Exchange, customers can post their own ideas as well as view, read, comment and vote on ideas posted from other customers. As the idea market grows, the most popular ideas rise to the top. At, they typically peel off the top X ideas each release to implement – and then transparently communicate back to the community a big THANK YOU! for sharing their ideas, rewarding customers for the top ideas they choose to implement, and publicly sharing with the community the ongoing focus of these ideas. And when they cannot, or choose not to, address a popular idea – they communicate that as well back to the community.

How can you seek to increase the transparency of your backlog and engage your customers in prioritizing your work?

An Agile Leadership Connection

You might read this story as purely a product development and Product Owner story – you are wrong. Consider it a metaphor for agile leaders…

Our work as agile leaders is a endless series of decisions. Many leaders with whom I coach often describe a day which is too busy to get their important work done – Urgent trumps Important. The leader’s day fills with the influx of issues and requests of employees and other stakeholders, and they spend much of their day in meetings and addressing these needs. This feedback loop feeds upon itself in a way that leaders become overwhelmed by their work and responsibilities. Their jobs become stressful as they seek to protect their employees and solve these problems. This is Heroic Leadership (as the expert solving the problems or as an achiever coordinating their being solved).

To reverse this trend, and to more effectively prioritize the important work you should be focused on, consider all of these emails and other requests like your product backlog – How often do you say “no”?How transparent are you with your personal backlog and focus?What strategies are you using to engage your “customers” (a.k.a. employees and stakeholders)?

Just as the role of Product Owner, the job as agile leader is also an impossible to solve puzzle – there is no “correct” answer or silver bullet. To solve this puzzle, or to optimize the results of their leadership, an agile leader must evaluate how they are engaging their employees in their work, and catalyzing them to solve problems rather than trying to solve them on their own in the privacy of their own office – seek transparency and engagement.