Agile Negotiations — Life Is a Negotiation; Why Would Scrum Be Different?

TL; DR: Life Is a Negotiation; Why Would Scrum Be Different?

Life is a negotiation; why would Scrum be different, particularly given its egalitarian nature? As you may recall, no one on a Scrum team can tell anyone else what to do, how to do it, or when to do it. Instead, solving your customers’ problems in a complex environment requires communication skills, empathy, patience, diplomacy, and professionalism. So let’s have a look at some typical agile negotiation scenarios.

Agile Negotiations — Life Is a Negotiation; Why Would Scrum Be Different?

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Agile Negotiation Levels

For Scrum to work well, it’s essential that the Scrum Team and stakeholders continuously discuss how to align their objectives, expectations, practices, and principles. These conversations guarantee the team can deliver customer value within the given constraints while contributing to the organization’s sustainability. While the Scrum Guide mentions several examples of this agile negotiation, many others derive from practicing agility in established organizations.

There are different agile negotiation scenarios, the most prominent being the team-internal and team-stakeholder levels:

Examples of Team-internal Negotiations

These areas cover the practical work of a Scrum team, from Product Backlog refinement to the Sprint to the Retrospective. As a result, the lists are far from comprehensive. However, they should allow for the discovery of additional scenarios to help prepare for them:

The Product Backlog and Refinement Level

  • Scope negotiation: The Product Owner, team members, and stakeholders discuss the project’s or product’s scope, negotiating any adjustments or changes that might be necessary.
  • Product Backlog refinement: The Product Owner and Developers collaborate to refine, estimate, and order the Product Backlog items based on value, risk, and dependencies.
  • Balancing technical debt and new features: The Scrum team needs to negotiate how to balance addressing technical debt while delivering new features, considering quality, maintainability, and customer and business needs, respectively.
  • Acceptance Criteria: The Product Owner, Developers, and probably stakeholders negotiate the specific requirements that need to be satisfied for a Product Backlog item to be accepted.
  • Estimating Effort: The Developers may negotiate the effort required to complete each Product Backlog item using techniques such as Planning Poker, T-Shirt Sizing, or the Bucket System.

The Sprint Planning Level

  • Sprint Goal: The Scrum team members align on a Sprint Goal, defining what the team aims to achieve based on current Sprint’s business objectives.
  • Technical decisions: Developers negotiate architectural choices, design patterns, and code practices to implement the best technical solutions.
  • Allocating tasks and responsibilities: Developers negotiate the allocation of tasks and responsibilities based on their skills, expertise, and capacity among themselves.

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The Sprint Level

  • Resolving conflicts and issues: Disagreements and conflicts may arise during the Sprint, requiring team members to negotiate and find solutions.
  • Clarification of requirements: Developers may need further clarification or details on Product Backlog items from the Sprint Backlog. They might negotiate with the Product Owner to refine the acceptance criteria or other specifications to ensure a clear understanding of what they need to deliver.
  • Changes in priority: Unforeseen events or changing business needs might lead to the Product Owner reevaluating the priority of certain Product Backlog items during the Sprint. The Developers and the Product Owner have to negotiate whether the team can accommodate the changes given the current Sprint Goal or whether they should be deferred to a future Sprint. On rare occasions, the outcome of this discussion may be a Sprint cancellation.
  • Scope adjustments: Developers may discover that a Product Backlog item is more complex than initially estimated, requiring additional effort or time. The Developers and the Product Owner may need to negotiate a scope adjustment, such as deferring part of the work to a future Sprint.
  • Technical decisions and trade-offs: Developers may encounter technical challenges or constraints that require them to make trade-offs between different solutions. They may need to negotiate with the Product Owner to align on the best approach, considering cost, time, maintainability, and performance factors.
  • Impediments and blockers: Developers may encounter impediments or blockers during the Sprint that impact their ability to complete their work. They may need to negotiate with the Product Owner to find solutions, for example, reprioritizing tasks.
  • Release Planning: The Scrum team members need to negotiate what the team will release to whom and when.

The Sprint Review Level

  • Sprint Review: During Sprint Review, the Scrum team and stakeholders review the work completed during the Sprint, discussing any potential improvements or changes to the product.
  • Prioritization of feedback: Stakeholders may provide feedback on the Increment(s), and the Scrum team may need to negotiate the priority and urgency of addressing this feedback. This discussion could involve adding new Product Backlog items, modifying existing items, or ordering the backlog in alignment with the Product Goal.
  • Timeline and release expectations: Stakeholders might have expectations about when certain features or capabilities will be available in the product. Consequently, the Scrum team may need to negotiate changes to their release timeline.
  • Risk mitigation: Stakeholders might identify new risks or raise concerns about existing risks during the Sprint Review. The team and stakeholders will need to negotiate strategies for mitigating these risks and balancing them against other priorities.

The Sprint Retrospective Level

  • Reflecting on process improvements: During Sprint Retrospectives, the Scrum team discusses and negotiates potential process improvements and experiments for the next Sprint, aiming to optimize their way of working.
  • Balancing improvement actions with Sprint work: The team may need to negotiate how much time and effort they can allocate to implementing improvement actions during the next Sprint, considering their other commitments and priorities.
  • Prioritizing improvement actions: The Scrum team may identify several potential actions to address the improvement areas. They will need to negotiate and prioritize these actions based on impact, effort, and dependencies.
  • Assigning responsibility and ownership: The team members may need to negotiate who will implement specific improvement actions and ensure their completion during the upcoming Sprints, a directly responsible individual (DRI).
  • Reviewing past decisions and agreements: The team may revisit decisions or agreements made in previous retrospectives, evaluating their effectiveness and discussing whether they should be adjusted or maintained. They may need to negotiate any changes to these past agreements.
  • Deciding on team norms and practices: The Scrum team members negotiate and agree on their working agreement, including communication norms, tools, and techniques that best support their collaboration and productivity.
  • Addressing team dynamics and interpersonal issues: The team may discuss concerns about communication, collaboration, or trust among team members. They may need to negotiate how to address these issues through team-building activities, conflict resolution, or coaching.
  • Definition of Done (DoD): The Scrum team negotiates and agrees upon the criteria a Product Backlog item must meet to be considered “done.”

Agile Negotiation Examples at the Team-Stakeholder Level

The agile negotiation scenarios between Scrum teams and stakeholders are significantly less obvious, as they largely depend on organizational and cultural conditions. Moreover, they rely on the kind of product or service offered. To provide minimum structure, I differentiate between three basic scenarios, from product alignment to coordination (of everyday work) to line management. Of course, there are multiple other areas a systematic approach to cataloging scenarios needs to consider:

The Product Alignment Level

  • Aligning on product vision and Product Goals: Stakeholders and the Product Owner may need to negotiate and align on the overall product vision, goals, and strategic direction, ensuring that the Scrum Team’s work supports the organization’s objectives.
  • Prioritizing organizational initiatives: The Scrum team and stakeholders need to negotiate the prioritization of various organizational initiatives that may impact the team’s focus and capacity.
  • Establishing a release plan: The Product Owner, management, and stakeholders collaborate and negotiate a release plan, balancing expectations, resources, and time constraints.
  • Balancing stakeholder interests: The Scrum team must negotiate and manage the interests of multiple stakeholders, ensuring that they address their needs and concerns while focusing on delivering value.
  • Setting and managing expectations: The Scrum team must negotiate with management and stakeholders to establish and manage expectations around delivery timelines, scope, and quality.
  • Quality and compliance: The Product Owner and Developers may need to negotiate with stakeholders to define quality standards, regulatory requirements, or other compliance criteria that the Scrum Team must adhere to during product development.
  • Risk management: The Product Owner and stakeholders may need to collaborate in identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks that might impact the project, negotiating risk prioritization and response strategies.

The Coordination Level

  • Stakeholder involvement and communication: The Product Owner and Scrum Master may need to negotiate the level and frequency of stakeholder involvement in the Scrum process, ensuring that stakeholders are informed and engaged while minimizing disruptions to the Scrum team’s work.
  • Resource allocation: The Scrum team may need to negotiate with stakeholders to secure the necessary resources, such as equipment, tools, or budget, to deliver the product effectively.
  • Managing organizational change: The Scrum team may need to negotiate with management and stakeholders to drive and support organizational change, such as adopting agile practices like Scrum, new tools, or structural changes.
  • Reporting and metrics: The Scrum team and stakeholders may need to negotiate the types of reports, metrics, or KPIs used to track the Scrum Team’s progress and performance, ensuring that they provide valuable insights and support decision-making without creating undue overhead.
  • Handling escalations and critical issues: When critical issues arise, the Scrum team, management, and stakeholders must negotiate and collaborate to address the situation, balancing the need for swift action with the team’s autonomy and process.
  • Managing dependencies: The Scrum team may need to negotiate with other Scrum teams or departments to manage dependencies, coordinate work, and ensure a smooth delivery process.

The Line Management Level

  • Team composition: Scrum Team members and the management may need to negotiate the optimal team composition, considering factors such as skill sets, experience, and team dynamics. Moreover, they need to agree on how to identify new team members.
  • Balancing individual and Scrum team goals: Team members may need to negotiate their personal development goals and aspirations with the collective goals and needs of the Scrum Team with the management.
  • Career development: Line managers and Scrum team members may need to negotiate career development plans, including goals, training opportunities, and potential career paths within the organization.
  • Compensation and benefits: Line managers and Scrum team members may need to negotiate whether existing individual compensation packages, including salary, bonuses, and other benefits, align with the needs of the Scrum team to work as a cohesive unit, not as a group of individuals.
  • Performance management: Line managers, Scrum Masters, or agile leaders may need to negotiate performance expectations, feedback mechanisms, and evaluation criteria for team members.


Trying to exercise presumed authority over teammates or stakeholders or taking a crowbar as your tool of choice to solve problems and accelerate decisions won’t get you anywhere when working in a complex environment with agile teams.

Instead, you better get good at continuous agile negotiation, as solving your customers’ problems in a complex environment requires communication skills, empathy, patience, diplomacy, and professionalism.

How are you negotiating with teammates, stakeholders, and the management? Please share your experience with us in the comments.

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