Scrum Rules: Your Product Owner Lets the Team Decide How Many Product Backlog Items to do in a Sprint

September 24, 2020
4 minute read

The Product Owner controls the order of the items in the Product Backlog, but not how many are done each Sprint. Instead, the team decides how many to do.

This decision is made in Sprint Planning and, of course, should be made in collaboration with the Product Owner, but ultimately the Product Owner must let the team freely decide how many items are planned. This freedom allows the team to be truly motivated and committed to the work as well as being collectively accountable for getting that work done. If the Product Owner forces a team to take on more work than it feels is within its capacity, then that dis-empowers the team, moves accountability for getting work done to the Product Owner, and completely disables the team from getting to a high-performance state.

If your Product Owner is not letting the team freely decide how many items to take in a Sprint, then the Scrum Master needs to intervene and do so strongly. This is one of the main reasons that the Scrum Master and Product Owner should never be the same person: to protect the team from this sort of destructive pressure. The Scrum Master can start by sharing the Scrum Guide rule (see below) about this topic. However, it often help for the Scrum Master to bring this topic up in a retrospective. This way the Product Owner can hear from the team members themselves why this is a bad think to do.

The Product Owner does have two alternatives to forcing the team to take on certain items:

  1. Re-order the Product Backlog in such a way that the team is selecting items that lead to desirable business results. This may not work if the team is choosing a small number of items because of large amount of “technical debt” that needs to be resolved. In which case…
  2. Stop Sprinting. This is an extreme choice, but it may be appropriate if the Product Owner determines that the team has ceased to be able to deliver more value in a Sprint than the cost of the Sprint. This is a hard choice to make and may need approval beyond the Product Owner.

The number of items selected from the Product Backlog for the Sprint is solely up to the Development Team. Only the Development Team can assess what it can accomplish over the upcoming Sprint. –The Scrum Guide

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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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