It’s commonly accepted nowadays that we use user stories or some variation on them to communicate our “product requirements” to development teams (job stories, jobs to be done, scenarios, etc). And while this is certainly an improvement over some of the bad, old Big Up-Front Requirements (BUFR) methods that were used many moons ago, they’re still not perfect, for a wide variety of reasons. All too often, they assume that certain considerations have already been made, that certain work has already been done — when in fact it often hasn’t. Not every development team has a UX and UI member dedicated to help them achieve a story; not every product can afford to have user-story level architecture decisions being made — and every User Story has to be the result of some amount of planning and forethought, both from a business and a technical perspective. While user stories are a great tool, they’re far from the only tool that we need in our drawer to be effective. Here are some things to consider when you’re relying on User Stories as your primary method of relaying work to be done to your development teams.
When most people talk about “vision” they’re evoking a concept of long-term planning, setting big and brash goals that you might or might not achieve, but which set a “north star” by which you can plot the course of your product and company. And while that’s an extremely valuable use of the term, I’ve recently been thinking that having a “vision” doesn’t always have to be a 5-year plan, but can be a 5-minute plan and be equally effective. In recent discussions with some fellow product managers, I’ve come to believe that we actually do use shorter-term visions regularly, but we talk about it in a variety of different terms. And when we do, we provide a similar “north star” effect to the people with whom we work on a daily basis — we allow them to chart the course to do more than they might have if we just told them what to do, and not where to go.
One of the many challenges that Product Managers face in trying to move organizations toward a more agile approach to product development is that some stakeholders simply don’t see the value in the shift. They believe that, since their way has worked for them for so long that there’s no need to change — after all, it can’t be broken if it works, right? But the simple fact is, the bad old ways of product development are dying, as markets and customers move faster and have more options available to them to solve their problems every single day. There’s not a single industry that isn’t facing high-investment newcomers who are able to move fast and adjust — and leave they’re slow-moving, waterfall-based competition in the dust.
I was called into a meeting with a team here in the office a couple weeks ago because they told me they had a “question” about the estimations that they were doing. As we started talking, it became immediately apparent what the problem was, they were getting into arguments about whether their estimates were “too big!” Apparently, someone had told them that they “couldn’t” have any stories that were above a certain value, or at least that’s how they took the directions they were given. I stopped them for a minute and had a quick discussion about the reasons why we estimate stories, and why it’s incredibly important for the story points to reflect the size the team thinks the work is, regardless of what other people “want” them to do. I walked away to leave them to their work, and was entirely unsurprised when I saw some 20-pointers land on the backlog. Far too many teams suffer from some malady similar to that of this team — they forget why we’re asking them to estimate, so they start to engage in anti-patterns that undercut the very purpose for which estimation exists. In a follow-up conversation with another member of our Product Team, I started to think about how to describe Story Points as something other than “estimates” — and I came up with the idea of them as a “signalling tool”…
I’ve touched on User Stories on several occasions, my favorite being Why Your User Stories Suck! Today I’m here to share with you a very common, yet very commonly overlooked, way to check each and every User Story on your backlog to see whether or not it’s really “ready” for your Dev teams. One of the most frequent causes of delays and slowdowns in most Agile implementations that I’ve seen comes from a lack of balance in the User Stories that the team is being given to deliver — stories that are too big, or which are dictates, or which just exist on the backlog because “someone asked for it”. What we need to do as Product Managers is to occasionally take a close look at each of our backlog items and make sure that they meet the INVEST criteria — Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable. If we do this simple gut-check on a regular basis, we’re far more likely to see our teams succeed and to reduce the amount of time wasted in long, drawn-out planning sessions.
Ironically, one of the most fundamental tools that Product Managers use every day to communicate requirements, expectations, and user goals to their development teams also sometimes seems to be one of the most difficult things to get right. Maybe it’s because many of us are used to the bad, old days of waterfall requirements, maybe it’s because our developers aren’t used to solving problems, or maybe it’s because our stakeholders and upper management expect certainty in what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. Regardless of the reasons, it’s absolutely essential that we master this tool and push for its proper use whenever we can. Properly-formatted, well-written user stories are the cornerstone of a user-centered design pattern — and stating a problem that needs to be solved in a way that allows developers the freedom to solve it in the way they deem most appropriate is a talent that all Product Managers can benefit from. [Read more…]