Tag Archives: product backlog

Pitfall of Scrum: Excessive Preparation/Planning

Regular big up-front planning is not necessary with Scrum. Instead, a team can just get started and use constant feedback in the Sprint Review to adjust it’s plans. Even the Product Backlog can be created after the first Sprint has started. All that is really necessary to get started is a Scrum Team, a product vision, and a decision on Sprint length. In this extreme case, the Scrum Team itself would decide what to build in its first Sprint and use the time of the Sprint to also prepare some initial Product Backlog Items. Then, the first Sprint Review would allow stakeholders to provide feedback and further develop the Product Backlog. The empirical nature of Scrum could even allow the Product Owner to emerge from the business stakeholders, rather than being assigned to the team right from the start.

Starting a Sprint without a Product Backlog is not easy, but it can be done. The team has to know at least a little about the business, and there should be some (possibly informal) project or product charter that they are aware of. The team uses this super basic information and decides on their own what to build in their first Sprint. Again, the focus should be on getting something that can be demoed (and potentially shippable). The team is likely to build some good stuff and some things that are completely wrong… but the point is to get the Inspect and Adapt cycle started as quickly as possible. Which means of course that they need to have stakeholders (customers, users) actually attend the demo at the end of the Sprint. The Product Owner may or may not even be involved in this first Sprint.

One important reason this is sometimes a good approach is the culture of “analysis paralysis” that exists in some organizations. In this situation, an organization is unable to do anything because they are so concerned about getting things right. Scrum is a framework for inspect and adapt and that can (and does) include the Product Backlog. Is it better for a team to sit idle while someone tries to do sufficient preparation? Or is it better to get started and inspect and adapt? This is actually a philosophical question (as well as a practical question). The mindset and philosophy of the Agile Manifesto and Scrum is that trying to produce valuable software is more important that documentation… that individuals and how they work together is more important than rigidly following a process or tool. I will agree that in many cases it is acceptable to do some up-front work, but it should be minimized, particularly when it is preventing people from starting to deliver value. The case of a team getting started without a product backlog is rare… but it can be a great way for a team to help an organization overcome analysis paralysis.

The Agile Manifesto is very clear: “The BEST architectures, requirements and designs emerge out of self-organizing teams.” [Emphasis added.]

Hugely memorable for me is the story that Ken Schwaber told in the CSM course that I took from him in 2003.  This is a paraphrase of that story:

I [Ken Schwaber] was talking to the CIO of a large IT organization.  The CIO told me that his projects last twelve to eighteen months and at the end, he doesn’t get what he needs.  I told him, “Scrum can give you what you don’t need in a month.”

I experienced this myself in a profound way just a couple years into my career as an Agile coach and trainer.  I was working with a department of a large technology organization.  They had over one hundred people who had been working on Agile pilot projects.  The department was responsible for a major product and executive management had approved a complete re-write.  The product managers and Product Owners had done a lot of work to prepare a product backlog (about 400 items!) that represented all the existing functionality of the product that needed to be re-written.  But, the big question, “what new technology platform do we use for the re-write?” had not yet been resolved.  The small team of architects were tasked with making this decision.  But they got stuck.  They got stuck for three months.  Finally, the director of the department, who had learned to trust my advice in other circumstances, asked me, “does Scrum have any techniques for making these kind of architectural decisions?”

I said, “yes, but you probably won’t like what Scrum recommends!”

She said, “actually, we’re pretty desperate.  I’ve got over a hundred people effectively sitting idle for the last three months.  What does Scrum recommend?”

“Just start.  Let the teams figure out the platform as they try to implement functionality.”

She thought for a few seconds.  Finally she said, “okay.  Come by this Monday and help me launch our first Sprint.”

The amazing thing was that the teams didn’t lynch me when on Monday she announced that “our Agile consultant says we don’t need to know our platform in order to get started.”

The first Sprint (two weeks long) was pretty chaotic.  But, with some coaching and active support of management, they actually delivered a working increment of their product.  And decided on the platform to use for the rest of the two-year project.

You must trust your team.

If your organization is spending more than a few days preparing for the start of a project, it is probably suffering from this pitfall.  This is the source of great waste and lost opportunity.  Use Scrum to rapidly converge on the correct solutions to your business problems instead of wasting person-years of time on analysis and planning.  We can help with training and coaching to give you the tools to start fast using Scrum and to fix your Scrum implementation.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.

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Summary of User Stories: The Three “C”s and INVEST

User Stories

Learning Objectives

Becoming familiar with the “User Story” approach to formulating Product Backlog Items and how it can be implemented to improve the communication of user value and the overall quality of the product by facilitating a user-centric approach to development.

Consider the following

User stories trace their origins to eXtreme Programming, another Agile method with many similarities to Scrum. Scrum teams often employ aspects of eXtreme Programming, including user stories as well as engineering practices such as refactoring, test-driven development (TDD) and pair programming to name a few. In future modules of this program, you will have the opportunity to become familiar enough with some of these practices in order to understand their importance in delivering quality products and how you can encourage your team to develop them. For now, we will concentrate on the capability of writing good user stories.

The Three ‘C’si

A User Story has three primary components, each of which begin with the letter ‘C':

Card

  • The Card, or written text of the User Story is best understood as an invitation to conversation. This is an important concept, as it fosters the understanding that in Scrum, you don’t have to have all of the Product Backlog Items written out perfectly “up front”, before you bring them to the team. It acknowledges that the customer and the team will be discovering the underlying business/system needed as they are working on it. This discovery occurs through conversation and collaboration around user stories.
  • The Card is usually follows the format similar to the one below

As a <user role> of the product,

I can <action>

So that <benefit>.

  • In other words, the written text of the story, the invitation to a conversation, must address the “who”, “what” and “why” of the story.
  • Note that there are two schools of thought on who the <benefit> should be for. Interactive design specialists (like Alan Cooper) tell us that everything needs to be geared towards not only the user but a user Persona with a name, photo, bio, etc. Other experts who are more focused on the testability of the business solution (like Gojko Adzic) say that the benefit should directly address an explicit business goal. Imagine if you could do both at once! You can, and this will be discussed further in more advanced modules.

Conversation

  • The collaborative conversation facilitated by the Product Owner which involves all stakeholders and the team.
  • As much as possible, this is an in-person conversation.
  • The conversation is where the real value of the story lies and the written Card should be adjusted to reflect the current shared understanding of this conversation.
  • This conversation is mostly verbal but most often supported by documentation and ideally automated tests of various sorts (e.g. Acceptance Tests).

Confirmation

  • The Product Owner must confirm that the story is complete before it can be considered “done”
  • The team and the Product Owner check the “doneness” of each story in light of the Team’s current definition of “done”
  • Specific acceptance criteria that is different from the current definition of “done” can be established for individual stories, but the current criteria must be well understood and agreed to by the Team.  All associated acceptance tests should be in a passing state.

INVESTii

The test for determining whether or not a story is well understood and ready for the team to begin working on it is the INVEST acronym:

I – Independent

  • The solution can be implemented by the team independently of other stories.  The team should be expected to break technical dependencies as often as possible – this may take some creative thinking and problem solving as well as the Agile technical practices such as refactoring.

N – Negotiable

  • The scope of work should have some flex and not be pinned down like a traditional requirements specification.  As well, the solution for the story is not prescribed by the story and is open to discussion and collaboration, with the final decision for technical implementation being reserved for the Development Team.

V – Valuable

  • The business value of the story, the “why”, should be clearly understood by all. Note that the “why” does not necessarily need to be from the perspective of the user. “Why” can address a business need of the customer without necessarily providing a direct, valuable result to the end user. All stories should be connected to clear business goals.  This does not mean that a single user story needs to be a marketable feature on its own.

E – Estimable

  • The team should understand the story well enough to be able estimate the complexity of the work and the effort required to deliver the story as a potentially shippable increment of functionality.  This does not mean that the team needs to understand all the details of implementation in order to estimate the user story.

S – Small

  • The item should be small enough that the team can deliver a potentially shippable increment of functionality within a single Sprint. In fact, this should be considered as the maximum size allowable for any Product Backlog Item as it gets close to the top of the Product Backlog.  This is part of the concept of Product Backlog refinement that is an ongoing aspect of the work of the Scrum Team.

T – Testable

  • Everyone should understand and agree on how the completion of the story will be verified. The definition of “done” is one way of establishing this. If everyone agrees that the story can be implemented in a way that satisfies the current definition of “done” in a single Sprint and this definition of “done” includes some kind of user acceptance test, then the story can be considered testable.

Note: The INVEST criteria can be applied to any Product Backlog Item, even those that aren’t written as User Stories.

Splitting Stories:

Sometimes a user story is too big to fit into a Sprint. Some ways of splitting a story include:

  • Split by process step
  • Split by I/O channel
  • Split by user options
  • Split by role/persona
  • Split by data range

WARNING: Do not split stories by system, component, architectural layer or development process as this will conflict with the teams definition of “done” and undermine the ability of the team to deliver potentially shippable software every Sprint.

Personas

Like User Stories, Personas are a tool for interactive design. The purpose of personas is to develop a precise description of our user and so that we can develop stories that describe what he wishes to accomplish. In other words, a persona is a much more developed and specific “who” for our stories. The more specific we make our personas, the more effective they are as design tools.iii

Each of our fictional but specific users should have the following information:

  • Name
  • Occupation
  • Relationship to product
  • Interest & personality
  • Photo

Only one persona should be the primary persona and we should always build for the primary persona. User story cards using personas replace the user role with the persona:

<persona>

can <action>

so that <benefit>.

 


i The Card, Conversation, Confirmation model was first proposed by Ron Jeffries in 2001.

ii INVEST in Good Stories, and SMART Tasks. Bill Wake. http://xp123.com/articles/invest-in-good-stories-and-smart-tasks/

iii The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper. Sams Publishing. 1999. pp. 123-128.

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Scrum Data Warehouse Project

May people have concerns about the possibility of using Scrum or other Agile methods on large projects that don’t directly involve software development.  Data warehousing projects are commonly brought up as examples where, just maybe, Scrum wouldn’t work.
I have worked as a coach on a couple of such projects.  Here is a brief description of how it worked (both the good and the bad) on one such project:
The project was a data warehouse migration from Oracle to Teradata.  The organization had about 30 people allocated to the project.  Before adopting Scrum, they had done a bunch of up-front analysis work.  This analysis work resulted in a dependency map among approximately 25,000 tables, views and ETL scripts.  The dependency map was stored in an MS Access DB (!).  When I arrived as the coach, there was an expectation that the work would be done according to dependencies and that the “team” would just follow that sequence.
I learned about this all in the first week as I was doing boot-camp style training on Scrum and Agile with the team and helping them to prepare for their first Sprint.
I decided to challenge the assumption about working based on dependencies.  I spoke with the Product Owner about the possible ways to order the work based on value.  We spoke about a few factors including:
  • retiring Oracle data warehouse licenses / servers,
  • retiring disk space / hardware,
  • and saving CPU time with new hardware
The Product Owner started to work on getting metrics for these three factors.  He was able to find that the data was available through some instrumentation that could be implemented quickly so we did this.  It took about a week to get initial data from the instrumentation.
In the meantime, the Scrum teams (4 of them) started their Sprints working on the basis of the dependency analysis.  I “fought” with them to address the technical challenges of allowing the Product Owner to work on the migration in order based more on value – to break the dependencies with a technical solution.  We discussed the underlying technologies for the ETL which included bash scripts, AbInitio and a few other technologies.  We also worked on problems related to deploying every Sprint including getting approval from the organization’s architectural review board on a Sprint-by-Sprint basis.  We also had the teams moved a few times until an ideal team workspace was found.
After the Product Owner found the data, we sorted (ordered) the MS Access DB by business value.  This involved a fairly simple calculation based primarily on disk space and CPU time associated with each item in the DB.  This database of 25000 items became the Product Backlog.  I started to insist to the teams that they work based on this order, but there was extreme resistance from the technical leads.  This led to a few weeks of arguing around whiteboards about the underlying data warehouse ETL technology.  Fundamentally, I wanted to the teams to treat the data warehouse tables as the PBIs and have both Oracle and Teradata running simultaneously (in production) with updates every Sprint for migrating data between the two platforms.  The Technical team kept insisting this was impossible.  I didn’t believe them.  Frankly, I rarely believe a technical team when they claim “technical dependencies” as a reason for doing things in a particular order.
Finally, after a total of 4 Sprints of 3 weeks each, we finally had a breakthrough.  In a one-on-one meeting, the most senior tech lead admitted to me that what I was arguing was actually possible, but that the technical people didn’t want to do it that way because it would require them to touch many of the ETL scripts multiple times – they wanted to avoid re-work.  I was (internally) furious due to the wasted time, but I controlled my feelings and asked if it would be okay if I brought the Product Owner into the discussion.  The tech lead allowed it and we had the conversation again with the PO present.  The tech lead admitted that breaking the dependencies was possible and explained how it could lead to the teams touching ETL scripts more than once.  The PO basically said: “awesome!  Next Sprint we’re doing tables ordered by business value.”
A couple Sprints later, the first of 5 Oracle licenses was retired, and the 2-year $20M project was a success, with nearly every Sprint going into production and with Oracle and Teradata running simultaneously until the last Oracle license was retired.  Although I don’t remember the financial details anymore, the savings were huge due to the early delivery of value.  The apprentice coach there went on to become a well-known coach at this organization and still is a huge Agile advocate 10 years later!
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Scrum “Inputs”

The Product Backlog is often described as the primary input to Scrum.  The Sprint starts with Sprint Planning and Sprint Planning starts with the Product Owner and the Product Backlog.  In principle, this makes perfect sense and hopefully it is enough for most teams and organizations to just start with the Product Backlog.  And if you don’t have a Product Backlog, then just start without one, get some stuff done that the team thinks is important, invite some people to the Sprint Review and most likely one of those people will end up becoming the Product Owner and gradually take on the responsbilities of that role.  I believe in just starting if you can.  I even wrote a blog post about this a while back and I stand by it.

I have served as a Scrum Master and coach for a number of teams and I have identified some patterns that I think are worth addressing.  Newly-formed teams tend to ask for (and need) a little more help than this in order to feel ready to start.  And I have learned from experience that it is usually more effective for the adoption of Scrum and team development for the team to feel ready enough to just start.

The Scrum Guide recognizes the following inputs to Sprint Planning:

  • Product Backlog
  • Latest product increment (not applicable to first Sprint)
  • Projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint
  • Past performance of the Development Team (not applicable to first Sprint)
  • Definition of “Done” (implicitly)

A newly-formed team often needs to address the following before the first Sprint:

  • Product Backlog
  • Projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint
  • Definition of “Done”

If these are not addressed before the first Sprint, then they will likely need to be addressed during Sprint Planning, which can place a lot pressure on a new team (especially in environments where it is difficult to build shared understanding of the work).

Product Backlog

Keep it simple.  It’s an ordered list of all the features, functions, enhancements and fixes that might be needed in the end product.  Get the Product Owner to blow these things out into a list.  It doesn’t need to be a complete list.  Just the most important things right now.  A good test is to give the Product Owner 5 minutes.  Whatever the Product Owner can think of in 5 minutes is important enough for the team to start working on.  There are all kinds of techniques that can be used to order the Product Backlog.  The simplest way is to just have the Product Owner eyeball it.  If people are uncomfortable with this, then introduce the other ways.  It doesn’t need to be perfect.  It will get better and become refined and adapted as you go.

Projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint

Multiply the number of working days in the Sprint (total days minus Sprint Planning, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective, rounding down) by the number of Development Team members by the average percentage team member dedication (hopefully 100%).  If you have weird things going on with team member allocation (not 100%) then you may find it helpful to refer to this blog post.  According to what the Scrum Guide says about Development Team size and Sprint duration, this number could theoretically be smaller (Sprint less than one week), but in most cases no less than 12 (3-member Development Team in a one-week Sprint) and no more than 207 (9-member Development Team in a one-month Sprint with 23 days – the maximum number of weekdays in a month).

Definition of “Done”

This is a list of all of the activities that will go into the intended Increment of the first Sprint in order for it to be done.  The team needs to know this before it can estimate the items in the Product Backlog as a team.  Estimation is not a requirement of Scrum, but is often very helpful in refining the Product Backlog, tracking velocity and making projections into the future based on historical actuals.

Planning with the Product Backlog, projected capacity and Definition of “Done”

In the first part of Sprint Planning, the team looks at the items at the top of the Product Backlog in order to determine what can be done in the Sprint and the Sprint Goal, keeping in mind that it will need to complete the items according to its Definition of “Done”.  Once the team has set a Sprint Goal, it can then create a set of tasks that represent how the work will get done.  All of the tasks should fulfill a specific attribute of the Definition of “Done” or be about the technical parts of the system that need to be built.  The team should try to create a set of tasks each of which are a one-person day effort or less.  Count the number of tasks.  If the number of tasks are close to the number of days of the team’s capacity, the team can be confident that it has a decent Sprint Backlog.  If not, then the the Sprint Backlog and likely the Sprint Goal will need to be adapted.

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Awesome Explanation of Why Refactoring is NOT on the Product Backlog!!!

From the excellent Ron Jeffries, we have “Refactoring – Not on the Backlog!

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Full-Day Product Owner Simulation Exercise

This simulation exercise rests on the idea that people learn a lot better by doing something than by talking about it.  My Product Owner classes were getting great reviews, but I really felt like there was something missing compared to my ScrumMaster classes which have a full-day ScrumMaster simulation exercise.  It took a little while to figure it out, but this article describes in detail how I do the simulation for the Product Owner class.  I’m sure it will evolve and get refined from here since I have only used the simulation twice so far.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

Pre-requisites: None!  No prior Scrum or Agile knowledge or experience required.

Audience: Product Owners, Business Analysts, Project Managers, Product Managers and other people responsible for business results and who interact with a Scrum team.

Timing: This simulation takes at least 7 classroom hours.  I usually run it from 8:30am to 5:00pm with a one hour lunch break and two 15 minute breaks during the day.

Materials Needed:

  • Coloured pencils and/or coloured markers
  • Black Sharpie fine-point markers
  • Scissors
  • Rulers
  • Scotch tape and/or glue stick
  • Blank white printer paper
  • Pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners
  • Blank white 4×6 and 3×5 note cards
  • Blank white box (e.g. a shirt box from U-Line)
  • Planning Game cards (email me if you want a bunch for free!)

Room Setup: Round tables with 4 to 6 chairs at each table.  Materials distributed to each table.

Agenda (with facilitator’s notes):

  • Lecture: Simulation Overview, Backlog Preparation and Refinement
    The purpose of the overall simulation is to learn to create a good Product Backlog in preparation for a Scrum team’s first Sprint. Review the agenda with participants.
  • Exercise: Great Products and their Vision
    5 minutes – at table groups, think about the consumer products you know and use often.  How are those products marketed and sold?  How are they presented?  How do you decide to use that product vs. a competitive product?
  • Discussion: What Makes a Great Product Vision?
    Ask for the group to brainstorm the qualities of a great product vision.  Ensure that “simplicity”, “urgency”, and “emotion” are all mentioned.  (Great reference: “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath.)
  • Discussion: Choosing a Product for the Simulation
    Give participants four product options (suggested options: “Doggy dating web site”, “iPad app for plastic surgeons”, “POS for food trucks with social features”, or come up with your own app idea).  A table group must agree to one of the options.  They will stick with this product for the remainder of the simulation.  5 minutes to decide (usually takes much less).
  • Part 1: Product Vision
    • Exercise: Product Vision Statement
      5 minutes – attempt to craft a brief, compelling product vision statement that communicates “simplicity”, “urgency” and “emotion”.
    • Lecture: Innovation Games – Product Box
      Product Box Handout [PDF]
      Talk about the need for a compelling vision as a pre-requisite for high-performance teams, and a way to decide what is in vs. out of a Product Backlog.  Introduce “Product Box” as a way to do market research in an Agile compatible way (collaborative, light documentation, quick).  Talk about the pattern of a product box: front to attract, back to showcase, sides to deal with objections.  Use of online resources / web research is allowed but should not dominate the exercise.
    • Exercise: Building Your Product
      30 minutes, with warnings at 15 minutes and 5 minutes remaining.  Ensure that by 10 minutes in, the group has actually started using the craft supplies and isn’t just talking.
    • Exercise: Presenting Your Product
      5 minutes – give additional time to allow groups to prepare for a trade show (in their market) presentation where other groups (or yourself) will role-play sceptical trade show participants.
    • Exercise: Product Vision Statement Reprise
      5 minutes – attempt to craft a brief, compelling product vision statement that communicates “simplicity”, “urgency” and “emotion”.
    • Discussion: Debrief
  • Part 2: Product Users
    • Handout: User Categories
    • Lecture: User Categories
      Describe “end users”, “customers” and “admin users” as the three major categories.  Users can be in hierarchies where a general user type may have two or more specific sub-types.
    • Exercise: Identifying Users
      10 minutes.  One user of each main type (end, admin and cust), at least 5 users in total.  More is okay.
    • Lecture: Personas, Usability and Empathy
      Introduce Persona concept (great reference: “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper).  Usability as part of Agile, not separate (i.e. “working software”).  Identifying personas as a way to build empathy from the development team to the end users/customers.
    • Exercise: Generate a Persona
      10 minutes.  Choose a primary user.  Generate name, age, background story, and relationship to product.  Don’t worry about an image.  Try to be specific and write the background so it emphasizes the concept of empathy.
  • Part 3: User Stories
    • Handout: User Stories [PDF]
    • Lecture: Writing Effective User Stories
      Use the example “As a Job Seeker, I can upload my resume, so that I get a job.”  Explain the user story template based on the handout.  Emphasize the idea of end user functionality.  Explain user stories as an important tool, but optional part of Scrum.
    • Exercise: Create User Stories
      Goal: 20 user stories for each group’s product, at least two user stories for each type of user, all done in 20 minutes.  User Stories must be written on 3×5 note cards with a 2cm blank area on right side of each card.  The groups start by writing one or two User Stories together, then divide and conquer to create the rest.  At the end of the 20 minutes, there is a brief amount of time allocated to making sure there are no duplicated “features” described.
    • Discussion: Review User Stories
      Workshop examples from each group.  Ensure that the “benefit” section of each story does not contain a feature.  Possibly discuss the three parts of a User Story as “who”, “what” and “why”.  The benefit is usually related to time, money or happiness and connects the User Story to the product vision.
    • Handout: User Story Splitting [PDF]
    • Lecture: Splitting User Stories
      Go through each of the “top” six splitting methods.  Provide simple examples where the group needs help.  E.g. error conditions as an example of splitting by business logic.
    • Exercise: Split Some
      Goal: result in at least 30 user stories, use each of the top six splitting methods at least once, give 15 minutes.
    • Discussion: Review Splitting
  • Part 4: Estimation and Financial Modelling
    • Lecture: Effort, Value and ROI
      Customers and business stakeholders estimate value, Scrum team members estimate effort, and ROI is the calculation of the ration of value over effort.  Discuss examples of ordering based on these ratios, e.g. 8/2 vs. 8/4 and 200/20 vs. 20/2.
    • Handout: The Bucket System
    • Lecture: The Bucket System
      Review process based on handout.
    • Exercise: Estimating Business Value
      10 minutes.  Goal: all user stories get a business value estimate written in the top right-hand corner of the user story card.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Bucket System
    • Handout: The Planning Game
    • Lecture: The Planning Game
    • Exercise: Estimating Effort
      20 minutes. Goal: estimate 3 user stories using the Planning Game.  Use the Bucket System to estimate the remainder with the ones already estimated as the reference points.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Planning Game
    • Handout: Methods of Ordering the Product Backlog
    • Lecture: Ordering a Product Backlog
      Review ROI as a method to order the PBIs.  Reminder that the Product Owner has final authority and can ignore the estimates in deciding on the order.
    • Exercise: Calculating ROI and Ordering
      5 minutes.  Just simple divide-and-conquer calculations of business value divided by effort for all the user stories.
    • Lecture: Simulation Wrap-Up – Where Does This Fit?
      Reminder of the idea of creating an initial Product Backlog that is “good enough” to start the first Sprint.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

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User Stories and Story Splitting

In Scrum and other Agile methods, a common way to manage feature requests is with User Stories.  I’ve been teaching people about User Stories and doing workshops with teams for a long time.  Out of that work, I’ve created a very simple PDF User Stories and Story Splitting reference sheet that might be handy.  Please feel free to download it and share it.  This document is something that I explain in-depth in my Certified Scrum Product Owner training seminars.

There are a number of sites out there that include some details that are left out of the reference.  Please see, for example, “Patterns for Splitting User Stories” by Richard Lawrence.  See also the great foundational article on “INVEST in Good Stories” by Bill Wake.

The format of a user story provided in the attachment was developed in conduction with Michael Hamman and Kara Silva and a number of other Agile coaches at Capital One in the 2004-2005 time frame.

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The Rules of Scrum: I take direction for product vision and scope from my team’s Product Owner

As a Team Member, it is my job to figure out how to solve a problem or request that is stated by a Product Backlog Item (PBI), with the help of my team.  It is the responsibility of the Product Owner to give us the vision of the product and decide how much scope is to be done to satisfy the PBI.  One simple way to think about this concept is that the Product Owner is responsible for the “what” and “why” and the Scrum Team is responsible for the “how” and “who”.  If the Team Members decide on the product vision by themselves, they run the risk of misinterpreting features, moving down a path that is not valuable or even creating work disconnected from the needs of those who will be using the software.  If the Team Members choose their own scope they may do much less than is needed or much more than is required.  There is a balance in the Product Owner providing vision and scope, and the Scrum Team providing knowledge and experience in its execution.

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The Rules of Scrum: The Product Backlog is easily visible to every stakeholder (e.g. cards on a wall or an electronic tool with open access)

The Product Backlog is a constantly changing artifact, owned by the Product Owner. Stakeholders need real-time visibility into the current state of the Product.  Stakeholders should be able to discuss the state of the Product Backlog with the Product Owner at any time, make recommendations and requests.  Any change resulting from the request of any stakeholder(s) must be visible in real-time to all other stakeholders.  One of the greatest benefits of a highly visible Product Backlog is that it becomes a conversational space for key stakeholders and many others that are connected to or interested in the work of the Scrum team.  Of course, a visible Product Backlog also upholds the Scrum value of transparency which is essential for long-term success with Scrum.  What if my Product Backlog is not easily visible to every stakeholder?  Stakeholders will become disengaged from the work of the Scrum Team, and will forget to give support and/or offer insights into the work.  If the Product Backlog is managed in an electronic tool that requires people to login and/or go into a special space that has restricted access then they are much less likely to view it regularly.

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The Rules of Scrum: Any stakeholder (e.g. Team Member, salesperson, client) can suggest a new PBI

The Product Backlog is a list of potential work to be done for future Sprints.  This list is most vibrant when as many people as possible contribute to it.  Those directly connected (stakeholders such as the Team Members, users of the systems, etc) have a stake in the product’s growth so they also have plenty of ideas that may benefit its value.  Adding a Product Backlog Item (PBI) is like brainstorming where all ideas are welcome.  Then it is the responsibility of the Product Owner through conversations with others to order the list based on the most value for the least effort (and sometimes to reject PBIs if they are too outside the product vision).  If the creation of PBIs is limited to just a few individuals, or even just the Product Owner alone, it is likely that many great ideas will not surface and will be lost.  Also by having all stakeholders contribute PBIs, the Product Owner builds collective ownership in the work of the Scrum Team which helps the team overcome obstacles and become supported by a larger group.

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The Rules of Scrum: The Product Backlog is refined to ensure it is ready for every Sprint Planning meeting

Product Backlog Items closest to the top of the Product Backlog should be small enough for the team to be able to complete at least one potentially shippable slice of the product in the next Sprint.  As well, they should be ready for the Sprint Planning meeting so that the team can plan its work for the Sprint.  To be ready for the Sprint Planning Meeting, each PBI must be estimated.  Generally speaking, Product Backlog Items at the top of the Product Backlog are clearer and more detailed than lower ones. More precise estimates are made based on the greater clarity and increased detail; the lower the order, the less detail. Product Backlog items that will occupy the Development Team for the upcoming Sprint are fine-grained, having been decomposed so that at least one item can be “Done” within the Sprint time-box. Product Backlog items that can be “Done” by the Development Team within one Sprint are deemed “ready” or “actionable” for selection in a Sprint Planning Meeting.  Having too many items in the Product Backlog “ready” for the team is considered wasteful over-planning, although generally the top ten items should be in this “ready” state.  The value of having a refined Product Backlog before the Spring Planning Meeting is that it enables the Scrum team to focus on the purpose of the Sprint Planning Meeting which is to answer these questions: What will be delivered in the Increment resulting from the upcoming Sprint and how will the work needed to deliver the Increment be achieved? Essentially, what is the Spring goal and what are the tasks needed to complete the goal?  Without a ready Product Backlog, the purpose of the Sprint Planning Meeting is difficult to achieve.

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The Rules of Scrum: Known defects (external quality) generally are ordered at the top of the Product Backlog to be fixed in the next Sprint

One of the key benefits of the using Scrum is that it allows the team to quickly identify defects and obstacles.  Now that the team has made these known, the team has the ability to remove and fix these defects.  What is the value of identifying problems in the product when nothing is done to repair them?  The team will become much faster if it can improve the quality on its own by removing known defects and making the software better.  Then the team will be able to take on more audacious goals instead of being weighed down by quality problems.  Moving known defects to the top of the Product Backlog places quality work as a central goal for the team to achieve which directly improves the product, makes customers and users of the software much happier and invigorates the team to continue to become more effective.  Placing known defects away from the top of the Product Backlog causes morale challenges, acceptance by the team of poor quality work and creates an atmosphere of apathy.  These are likely to cause a failure by the Scrum Team to deliver on its goals.

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The Rules of Scrum: PBIs are written as User Stories (“As a ___ I can ___ so that ___”)

The User Story is a tool developed with Extreme Programming that is almost universally accepted as part of Scrum.  The User Story format is an effective way of communicating end user value to the Scrum Team.  The first blank is a user (a person, not a system), the second blank is the action of the story (unique), and the third blank is the benefit (for any stakeholder, and outside the system).  A User Story is made up of three “C’s”: Card, Conversation and Confirmation.  The Card is the written version of the story (usually a physical card on the wall).  It is considered to be an “invitation to a conversation”.  The Conversation is where the real value resides and potentially involves all stakeholders. The Conversation can cause changes to the Card.  Confirmation is the acceptance criteria that, when tested against, confirms the valuable result of the story.  A User Story is an extremely effective way of creating light and conversational PBIs – this is why many Scrum teams use them.  Another way to view User Stories is that it tells any reader the “who”, the “what”, and the “why” – who cares about this, what is the need/action, and why does the person want this.  This is just enough information to make sure that an effective conversation occurs.

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The Planning Game – An Estimation Method for Agile Teams

The Planning Game [PDF] – printable reference.

Purpose: estimate the effort for User Stories (Product Backlog Items, Value Drivers)

Prerequisites: all items have a value estimate, each item is written on a separate note card, full team membership is known and available for planning, each team member has a set of planning game cards

Process:

  1. The team goes through all the items and chooses the one which has the lowest effort. Write the number “2” on this card (usually in the bottom right corner).
  2. The team looks at the item with the highest value.
  3. Each team member thinks about how much effort the team will expend to fully complete all the work for the item. Comparing this work to the work effort for the smallest item, each team member selects a card that represents this relative effort. For example, if you think that it requires ten times the effort, you would select the “20” card. It is not permissible to select two cards.
  4. Each team member places their selected card, face down, on the table. Once all team members have done this, turn the cards over.
  5. If all team members show the same value, then write the value on the item and go back to step three for the next item. (Or if there are no more items, then the process is complete.)
  6. The person with the highest and the lowest value cards both briefly explain why they voted the way they did. If there is a Product Owner present, this person can add any clarifications about the item.
  7. For any given item, if a person is highest or lowest more than once, then each explanation must include new information or reasoning.
  8. Once explanations are complete, the team members collect their cards and go back to step three.

Notes:
– it is extremely important that the voting for an item continues until all team members unanimously vote the same way (this way team members and outside stakeholders cannot blame any individual for “wrong” estimates)
– in Scrum, it is normal for the Product Owner to be present during this process, but not to participate in the voting
– in OpenAgile, it is acceptable for people serving as Growth Facilitators for a team to participate in the voting
– voting should not include extensive discussion
– if more than one person has the lowest or highest vote, usually just one person shares their reason in order to help the process move quickly
– the first few items will often take 10 or 15 rounds of voting before the team arrives at a unanimous vote
– later on, items may take just one or two rounds of voting to arrive at a unanimous decision
– some teams, where trust levels are high, will discard with the use of physical cards and just briefly discuss votes

The planning game is used at the start of a project with the full list of user stories. In this case, it is reasonable to expect the team to average two minutes per user story, and an appropriate amount of time needs to be set aside to accommodate going through the whole list.

The Planning Game is also used any time that there is a change in the list of user stories: re-ordering, adding or removing user stories, or changes to a single user story. When such a change happens, the team can re-estimate any user story in the whole list. When starting a Cycle or Sprint or Iteration, all the user stories in the list should have up-to-date estimates so that estimation work is avoided in the Cycle planning meeting.

Finally, the team can decide to re-estimate any user stories at any time for any reason. However, it is important for team members to remember that estimation is non-value-added work and the time spent on it should be minimized.

NOTE: The Planning Game is described as Planning Poker on wikipedia.  The version described there has some minor variations from this version.

A closely related method of Agile Estimation is the Bucket System.

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