Tom Boulet has recently triggered a discussion in the Agile+ community on Google+ about user stories, cf. the following quote from his inquiry:

A couple weeks ago, I heard someone say “The stories weren’t detailed enough for the development team..” I thought, Wha? Stories are meant to be high level and if you use acceptance criteria this comes after the team starts looking at them, doesn’t it? It sounded like the person felt that Stories had to be “fleshed out” somehow before development could get started. […] Also, I’ve recently seen talk of how stories should be small enough to code in a day or two (I’d call that a task) and another reference to “codable stories.” None of this sounds right to me. It sounds like a large number of Agilists are seeing stories as part of the design pre-development. Has the definition of Story shifted on me?

The resulting discussion is highly insightful. I particularly like one reply by Alan Dayley, which I quote in some parts:

It is hard to describe in brief sentences all the forces that pull organizations to keep them thinking in lots of details. A few might be: - A culture and history of Big Design Up Front that makes it hard for feature definition to happen just in time. - A continued need for long range planning requiring estimates for work that will possibly take months before it actually starts. - Skilled technical people who are accustomed to talking about technical details instead of the needs of the user. And more…

The most powerful and subtle force to cause “user stories” to grow is a continued lack of focus for the people defining features and those creating the features.

For example, if I am Product Owner of 5-12 products working with 3 teams who are all working on multiple products, I am not able to think of a feature, collaborate on it’s definition as it is built, see it created and then think about the next feature. I have to document my thinking of every feature because one hour from now I have to think about other features that also might not be built right away.

The key to being truly Agile is to finish stuff. The more inventory of ideas, features, undeployed code, etc. that we have, the less Agile we can be.

This highly resonates with my thinking. But it also got me thinking and reminded me of another discussion I participated in in one of Xing’s agile groups: for many companies, being able to keep stories high-level, have the Product Owner engage with the developement team just in time and clarify all those nitty-gritty details in short-enough time that the team can implement it, sound like the wet dream of agile heaven. I, too, have mostly seen teams in which there was substantial time invested by the Product Owner (at least), often accompanied by the Scrum Master and some development team members, to “groom the backlog” and to prepare the stories for the next sprint. This preparation, which more often than not involves adding lots of details according to some definition of ready, typically also includes story splitting. I’ve seen development teams straight out refuse to work on stories “too big” according to some arbitrarily set size limit. I guess the reasons behind this basically boil down to fighting FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), cf. this article listing potential benefits of small stories:

There are lots of benefits from having smaller stories.

From a user and usage perspective, reducing the story size forces me to understand users and usage better. It forces me to separate what really is valuable or useful to the users from what’s merely interesting. From a release management perspective having lots of smaller stories allows us more flexibility with planning, prioritizing, and cutting scope. From a development and detailed design perspective, a smaller story often implies we know more about what to build - there’s less unknown, less risk – less risk of the development work mushrooming into something much larger.

There are two obvious problems with this:

  • The development and release management perspective and their respective goals are not a good match for the business value that is driving a story. As a result of this, when you decompose stories into slizes too thin, the business value proposition, i.e. the “in order to ” part of Mike Cohn’s classical user story template, often becomes very awkward and only understandable in the direct context of some user interaction. Quick, tell me, what is the real business value of “As an order maker, I need to enter my credentials to access my orders” (cf. Godjo Adzic’s rant that writing “As a user” doesn’t make it a user story)?

  • The other problem is that often “understand users and usage better” is actually design work, as also asked by Tom Boulet in the discussion: “Can requirements really be separated from design? As requirements become more detailed don’t they really become design? Does this constrain the design part of development? […] And ultimately, can good design really be done without coding trial and error? Does a customer and PO really know what they want up front?” Here, the article by Mary Poppendieck on the Product Owner problem is helpful: according to her, the most important role of the development team is product design:

    The entire team needs to be part of the design decision process. Team members should have the level of knowledge of the problems and opportunities being addressed necessary for them to contribute their unique perspective to the product design. Only when decisions cannot be made by the development team would they be resolved by a product leader. The main team-facing responsibility of the product leader is to ensure the people doing the detailed design have a clear understanding of the overall product direction.

It would seem a development team with a “definition of ready” that requires lots of details and splitting stories into thin slizes is lacking this “clear understanding” and arguably refusing to take responsibility for designing the product. Again, my gut feeling is that this is a sign of the maturity of an organization, wrt. to agility: e.g., building this clear understanding typically requires a longevity of development teams which often clashes with the “project-based” approach taken by many organizations. And if development teams don’t know the market, the customers they are building the product for, where should this understanding come from?

In the discussion, Heiko Stapf also referred to the agile principle of “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” in the discussion, noting that “Having PO/Tester/Techguys sitting together finding a common understanding and language” is more akin to favor individuals and interactions, whereas “having the PO writing down requirements and passing them (in written form)” is more about process/tool. I find this to be indeed the case, where sometimes the underlying cause is that it’s difficult to arrange for enough room (time) to have the necessary interaction. But it might also be simply lack of collaboration, i.e. when developers just feel it’s not their job to work on (the formulation and details of) user stories.

I’ve also seen teams run into problems with getting the right information in time. IMHO they are either due to lack of knowledge on the Product Owner’s side or lack of empowerment. In the former case, when some detail needs to be clarified, the Product Owner might not have the necessary domain expertise required to answer the question right away and she needs to go back to some domain expert (which might not be immediately available, delays occur etc.). The later case is where the Product Owner has an opinion on some matter (e.g., whether to use this or that design) but feels she needs to go back to someone major stakeholder (potentially multiple). Also, when the team (PO+dev team) haven’t yet found the path to close collaboration, the resolution of some issue might require too much time to allow for implementation. In such scenarios, the idea of using a definition of ready with small stories is actually aimed at ensuring that some work can actually be finished in some time box at all (this is linked to ensuring a story is “feasible”, cf. Roman Pichler’s take on the “definition of ready”.

Of course, there are also legitimate reasons to split stories which are linked to other organizational issues: e.g., when the story is big it can’t possibly implemented by a single team in given small time box and hence needs to be split over multiple teams or multiple time boxes. Or when the requirement is yet more an epic than a “ready” story and when split, business value can still still be obvious for the smaller stories. And then there is also the process where you start out with a vague “feature idea” and need to understand it more before it would be ready for implementation, as I’ve described in my post on agile conception.

In summary, I would say that a large backlog with lots of tiny stories is a clear indicator of a lack of maturity of the team and / or organization. In an ideal world, all our teams would be mature enough that nobody would ever want to have too many detailed written specifications upfront, but alas in our reality we have to work hard to get there. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this than to try and persist: gain the knowledge and the confidence, build the tools and the trust you need.

ObTitle: Modest Mouse, from “The Moon & Antarctica”

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  • Not lost but found 
    Requirement anorexia -- does size matter?
    One of the recurrent puzzles with regard to requirements management that I keep running into is the question what would be the “right” size of a requirement. It often starts with some people coming up with very tiny and very specific requireme ...

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