Budget instead of estimating

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book 50 Quick Ideas to Improve your User Stories. If you want to try this idea in practice, I’ll be running a workshop on improving user stories at the Product Owner Survival Camp

Detailed estimation works against the whole idea of flexible scope, but many companies I worked with fall into a common trap when they insist on work duration estimates. The typical story is that someone wants to know the rough delivery date for a large piece of work. Scope gets broken down into small, detailed stories, which are then discussed and estimated and the estimates are added up. Dan North at Oredev in 2011 said “We are terrified of uncertainty – we would rather be wrong than uncertain”, and this is where the problem starts. A nice precise number feels good, it feels as if someone is in control. The premise of this process is deeply flawed, because any estimates come with a margin of error, that is rarely considered. Just adding things up does not take into account compound effects of those errors, so the end result is precise, but horribly wrong. There are several popular error reduction techniques, such as estimating with intervals of confidence and estimating based on statistical averages, but in many contexts this is actually not the right problem to solve. Long-term estimates give the wrong impression of precision and promote long-term commitment on scope, which eliminates the biggest benefit businesses can get from agile delivery – flexible planning.

Instead of estimating, try an experiment and start with a budget for a bigger piece of work, both in terms of operational costs and time. This budget can then become a design constraint for the delivery team, similar to scalability or performance. Essentially, instead of asking “how long will it take?”, more useful questions to ask are “when do you need this by?” and “how much can you afford to pay for it?” Continue reading

User stories should be about behaviour changes

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book 50 Quick Ideas to Improve your User Stories. If you want to try this idea in practice, I’ll be running a workshop on improving user stories at the Booster conference in Bergen, NO next month. I’m also participating in the Product Owner Survival Camp in Zurich in March and we’ll be playing around with hierarchical backlogs and behaviour changes then as well.

Bill Wake’s INVEST set of user story characteristics has two conflicting forces. Independent and Valuable are often difficult to reconcile with Small. Value of software is a vague and esoteric concept in the domain of business users, but task size is under the control of a delivery team, so many teams end up choosing size over value. The result are “technical stories”, things that don’t really produce any outcome and a disconnect between what the team is pushing out and what the business sponsors really care about.

Many delivery teams also implicitly assume that something has value just because business users asked for it, so it’s difficult to argue about that. Robert Brinkerhoff, in Systems Thinking in Human Resource Development, argues that valuable initiatives produce an observable change in someone’s way of working. This principle is a great way to start a conversation on the value of stories or to unblock a sticky situation. In essence, translating Brinkerhoff’s idea to software means that it’s not enough to describe just someone’s behaviour, but we should aim to describe a change in that behaviour instead. This trick is particularly useful with user stories that have an overly generic value statement, or where the value statement is missing. Continue reading

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Flexible Scope – Slides

Here are the slides and the references from my talk at JFokus this week, on surviving and thriving with flexible scope:

Here are some additional resources and reading materials:

If this is a topic of interest, I strongly suggest attending one of the upcoming Product Owner Survival Camps. David Evans is running a fantastic session on user stories, and as a bonus you can practice Story Maps with Christian Hassa and impact mapping with me.

Divide responsibility for defining stories

One of the most common mistakes with user stories is to expect business stakeholders to fully define the scope. By doing that, delivery teams are effectively avoiding the responsibility (and the blame) for the ultimate business success of a solution. Although there are many reasonable arguments why this is good, there is also a huge unwanted side-effect: the people who are inexperienced in designing software products – business users – end up having the ultimate responsibility for product design. Unless business users have detailed knowledge of the technical constraints of your product, an insight into current IT trends and capabilities, and a solid understanding of your architectural choices, this is not a good idea. I can write a whole book on why this is a bad idea, but Anthony Ulwick beat me to it – read What Customers Want if you need convincing. The end result is often technically suboptimal, with lots of technical debt because things need to be hacked in, error-prone design and a huge waste of time and money on maintaining overcomplicated solutions.

The cause of this problem is a common misconception of the stakeholder role in agile delivery methods. The Product Owner or the XP Customer should be responsible for deciding what the team will work on. But deciding isn’t the same as defining, and this is where the things go wrong! I strongly believe that getting business stakeholders to design solutions wasn’t the original intention of user stories – but many teams have fallen into this trap. If this situation sounds familiar, here’s an experiment that can help you fix it:

Continue reading