A few weeks ago I was invited to comment on a checklist for Scrum Product Owners. The list wasn’t obviously wrong; it had many of the elements that anyone would enumerate after a casual two-hour introduction to Scrum. It’s not the first such checklist I’ve seen. This one in particular made me uncomfortable at the level of principles that are crucial for what matter in life and career. As such, it helped me tie together a wide range of topics I’ve written about earlier in this forum, and I’d like to share my reflections here.
I wrote earlier about the theologian Carse and the way he distinguishes between finite and infinite games. A job is like a finite game with a finite set of rules, and has a short-term goal. An infinite game is open-ended both in its rules and the valuation of its ongoing outcomes. Carse’s perspective is a great metaphor for job versus vocation.
A career starts as a job. A job offers new challenges, no matter what your educational background or experience, and the adjustment starts with delineated changes in behavior. For such jobs I’m not against checklists. Written media can provide cues and reminders of the rote of our learning. A written medium like a list is a starting point to grow knowledge, and knowledge can be a foundation for learning.
Learning takes place by growing through plateaus. In Aikido we talk about the shu, ha, and ri levels of learning. Shu is about blind obedience — well-suited to checklists and rules. You learn exactly how to do shomenuchi (head strike) by imitating sensei. But even in shu, the key is intentional practice: repeating the action hundreds of times. The next level, ha, means “to break.” You break the rules of one sensei in favor of the superiority of those from another in a given context. At ri, you break with your school and you are sensei. Shu is about what you do. Ha is about what you are in the moment. Ri is about what you are becoming.
Rules can be conveyed as audits; attitudes, less so. Great tennis players can’t write down the mentality that makes them great. Maybe stories work; it must be learned, but cannot be taught.
The checklist angered me for two reasons. First, it was off the mark. If it had been a list about knowledge, or about a task-driven job like product management, such oversights are easily forgiven. But, second, it took the broad attitudinal role and reduced it to a checklist process. It’s like defining a priest in terms of the rituals he or she performs instead of the love, piety, and humanity germane to the role. My anger left me sad, because it became clear that this person will never see that he would not be the right person to write such a list even if it were about lists. He had reduced the role of Product Owner to the lowest rudiments of the mechanics of a product manager.
Being a Product Owner is about long-term value, which is focused outward and, in a vulgar sense, on the market but, in a human sense, on the community and on humanity. You find this in the sense of harmony present in the Japanese roots of Scrum. The list was not obviously wrong in its individual elements. But Carse tells us that playing an infinite game as though it were a finite game is the very definition of evil. In the end, this checklist was no less so.