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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:

  • Get business stakeholders (sponsors, XP customer, product owners…) to specify only the “In order to…,” and “As a …, ” parts of a user story
  • Get the delivery group (team) to propose several options for “I want…”
  • Both sides together evaluate the options and the business stakeholders decide which one will be implemented

The major benefit of this approach is that it forces both sides to have a conversation in order to decide on the actual solution. Delivery team members will have to explain several options, and business stakeholders will have to evaluate them, so this experiment can shake up teams where user stories come fully specified from the business. The collaboration also puts the responsibility for solution design on the people who are good at designing solutions - the delivery team.

Because business stakeholders are constrained in specifying only the role and the business benefit of a user story, they will typically think much harder about the impacts they want to cause instead of the features. That itself is a huge step towards preventing the user story stream of consciousness. The stories will move from a generic unspecified value (“in order to improve business”, or “in order to sell more”) to something very specific (“in order to monitor inventory 50% faster”). Having a clearer problem definition is always good. In particular, this helps to understand the dimension of the problem, and how much it is worth spending on solving it before you commit to a solution.

The third big benefit of this approach is that it forces both business stakeholders and delivery teams to evaluate several solutions, reinforcing the idea of flexible scope and moving analysis from “did we understand this correctly?” to “what’s the best possible thing to do?”. Expecting to deal with several options also reinforces the idea that there isn’t much point in defining solutions in too much detail upfront.

If you decide to run this as an experiment, here are a few tips how to get the most out of it:

Communicate clearly upfront that this is an experiment and that you want to run it for a while and then evaluate with everyone (business stakeholders and delivery team). This will make it easier to get buy-in. Running process changes as limited, reversible experiments is a great way to avoid pushback and power-play politics. (For more on this, read Switch).

Agree upfront that features are not allowed in “In order to…” - this is an easy way to cheat the experiment. The “In order to..” part shouldn’t say anything about what the software or the product does, only what the users will be able to do differently. An easy way to avoid the problem is to enforce that part to specify a behaviour change, or enabling or preventing a behaviour.

Try to propose at least three options for how the software might provide the value business users expect. Faced with only two options, people often just focus on choosing one of the presented alternatives. With more possibilities, the discussion tends to be focused on the constraints, pros and cons of different ideas, and often inspires someone to propose a completely new, much better, solution.

Let business stakeholders also propose options in the discussion - but not before. Presenting different options and their constraints will provide a better decision making framework for evaluating ideas, including those that business sponsors had in their heads even before the meeting (and they definitely had them). It’s absolutely fine to adopt an option proposed by the business users after the discussion, if they still think that’s the best solution.

The discussions should make everyone quickly understand that there is always more than one solution, and that the first idea is often not the best one. Once people are OK with this, and they see the benefits of collaboratively defining scope, you can relax the rules if you want.

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