Slicing User Stories, Delivering Value

Are you on one of the many agile teams struggling with backlogs and user stories? Don’t give up. I teamed up with Jeff Sutherland, CEO of Scrum Inc., to deliver a webinar called “Slicing User Stories.” We focused on helping teams manage their backlogs, improve sprints and release planning, and increase delivered value using practices Mary Gorman and I wrote about in Discover to Deliver.

Here’s a summary of what we discussed. And stay tuned; I’ll go deeper into this in an upcoming webinar with the Scrum Alliance.

Common Backlog Problems

The trouble teams have with unruly backlogs usually comes down to three main problems:

  1. Too many user stories. I shared an example from one client who showed me their backlog. It had 578 stories! Obviously, that’s a big problem. You can’t assign every item in your backlog equal importance and turn them all into user stories.
  2. Stories are too big. If all you have are large stories, they can’t all get done. This is detrimental to team’s motivation, and it impedes velocity.
  3. Stories are unclear. When a story is ambiguous, teams struggle with how it fits into the overall product.

I examined the typical user story format of “As a [role], I want [goal/desire] so that [benefit].” Whenever you write one of these stories, ask yourself: Is it small? Is it easily understood? Can the development team act on it? Is it valuable?

To get your team to a point where it can answer yes to these questions, focus on two things: optioning and valuing. Think of a product your team works with, and then think about its possible features and capabilities—i.e., options. In agile, we don’t yield all the options at once; we need to quickly evaluate and prioritize them by what will deliver the highest value.

“Ready” Backlog

Jeff stressed that this step in getting your backlog ready is very important. He shared that he and Ken Schwaber had updated Scrum Guide to put a focus on the idea of “ready.” Jeff shared one study he co-authored that indicated when there is a “ready” backlog when the first sprint starts, it doubles the team’s productivity—which is worth about a million dollars per team!

So, how can you quickly get everyone on the team on the same page? I shared how the Seven Product Dimensions are used to explore and evaluate user stories in structured conversations. The dimensions are:

User: The people, systems, and devices that interact with the product
Interface: How users connect with the product
Action: The capabilities offered
Data: The data and information the product retains
Control: The policies, regulations, and rules the product enforces
Environment: The physical location of users as they interact with the product, as well as hardware, software, and physical properties
Quality attribute: This describes your product’s application and development properties, including security, usability, reliability, and performance, etc. Many agile teams don’t realize these aspects need to be quantifiable and testable, so they end up scurrying to address them at the end of the sprint, which causes delays and quality problems.

The idea is to explore options holistically within and across all seven dimensions, identify high-value options that yield the highest immediate value for the next delivery cycle and assemble them into cohesive stories. The result: small, well-understood, actionable, valuable stories.

But the conversation isn’t over!

Confirmation Your Shared Understanding

You still have to confirm that the stories are fully understood. Explore acceptance criteria using scenarios, or instances of use. Turn these scenarios into examples, which in this sense means scenarios that contain actual data values. Then build tests using concrete, unambiguous acceptance criteria. Cucumber, FitNesse, and other automation tools, many of which employ the Given-When-Then structure, can help create executable specifications.

It’s a good idea to calibrate how your team will reach this confirmation. I shared how some clients use a checklist for “ready” that includes the 7 Product Dimensions, along with a guideline of taking at least three scenarios through the story with the 7 Product Dimensions before they declare a story is ready. Another client starts with scenarios, then runs through product dimensions, then builds tests. Jeff suggested looking at the Ready for Implementation checklist in the Scrum and CMMI paper “Going from Good to Great: Are You Ready-Ready to Be Done-Done?” to find what’s right for your team to optimize velocity.

Ultimately, getting to small, well-understood, actionable, valuable stories requires collaborative discovery – multiple perspectives, including the actual product users along with the business and technology SMEs.

Tackling Wicked Problems with Fast Feedback

Jeff mentioned an old software adage: Users never know what they want until they see a piece of working software. I compared that idea to the concept of a “wicked problem,” which is when a problem and its solution are tied up together—you can’t understand the problem until you start to solve it. The problem and solution space overlap.

Both customers needing to see working software and the concept of wicked problems illustrate how important it is to engage users throughout the process, sprint after sprint, so you can build the most valuable things first. When you get something running as early as possible for the user to interact with, you get valuable feedback earlier.

After you’ve collaboratively sliced requirements, clarified high-value options as stories, and confirmed them, the team and product owner are ready to allocate stories to the sprints. They might defer to sprint +1 or beyond, based on studying the stories, balancing risks and dependencies; reviewing team velocity or cycle time; assessing team capacity, and other factors. Now the team can get started, feeling confident they have a clear path to success.

Slicing user stories will improve your planning predictability, expose development problems, and get you customer feedback early so you can increase your product’s delivered value. Get ready, so you can get to done!

Upcoming Webinar on “Ready” Stories

Want to know more? I’ll be delivering a webinar in the Scrum Alliance Leadership Series on March 15th. Registration is now open; I hope you will join us!

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