User Story as a Card

User Story is one of the most common formats how to write Product Backlog Item. It has specific format which forces people to focus on business value.

As a [user | role| persona]
I want to get [functionality]
So that I get [business value]

As an example of such User Story for my online beer store called “Berrer” we can write the following:

As Jon (busy manager with no time)
I want to get beers selected by “Beerer”
So that I can impress my friends by variety of rare brands.

It shall give us three different information – Who, What, and Why – which must fit together and once you read it to someone it shall create consistent story together. As you may have noticed the User Story looks at the functionality from the business perspective and is customer centric (note that customers are all user, stakeholders, other teams, … ). We never define how exactly it shall be solved, but describe the business impact we want to achieve.

Write Acceptance criteria was never good idea

Having that definition, companies are often missing the place where to write the exact specification. But there is none. It’s all about conversation. It should fit a small index card. Having said that, teams are still fighting and try to keep it as close as possible to the traditional detailed specification. One way how keep it close is to add detail as Acceptance criteria. It usually looks as checklist of all possible details you shall/shall not implement. It seems to be useful for teams who have limited understanding of business and product but it’s not. To give you an example of such Acceptance Criteria for the above defined User Story, it can look like this:

  • Beers from all continents
  • At least one beer from Belgium
  • Several small local breweries
  • One light, dark, Ale, Pils

As a result of it development team is not involved in the story definition anymore. They just take those points one by one and implement it. If it’s not working as we missed something, it’s not their fault but the Product Owners’. He shall have made the missing piece part of the Acceptance criteria. So let’s have a look to better solution.

Define Conditions of Satisfaction instead

As we said before, User Story is about conversation. It shall be simple, clear, and easy to remember. If you write well so it is small enough, there is no need for any additional information at the back side of the card. However sometimes you might find it useful to stress certain expected behavior / impact. In such case we turn the User Story card and write the Conditions of satisfaction. For the above defined story it might be:

Jon can impress his friends by selection of all different tastes of beer selected from micro-breweries across the world.

As a result of this the team is focusing on solving user problem instead of implementing what was defined before. The implementation usually starts with conversation. How can we deliver the more value with less effort? What is the minimal functionality we have to deliver? How can we address his needs? We need everyone involved, everyone interested, and everyone understand the overall business, personas, their needs and their dreams.

It may take bit longer at the beginning, but it’s worth investing the effort as the committed team which is living by the product can always come up with better solution then one Product Owner.

Writing Acceptance criteria is our legacy from traditional world, while defining Conditions of satisfaction is very Agile. Agile and Scrum is mindset. If you have it, it doesn’t matter how you write your User Stories because you already understand the fundamental difference. It’s about value to be delivered to the customer, instead effort, items delivery, and velocity. If you don’t, changing only the label won’t help. You would have to significantly change the way you think about Backlog items and that might be very painful and long process where User Story format with Conditions of satisfaction will help. I went through that change with several companies during Agile Coaching and it was always worth of the effort. If you want to get bit more practice, I also teach it at CSPO – Certified Scrum Product Owner class.

Product Owner is an investor

Product Owner role is usually more understandable for companies that the ScrumMaster role. After all, companies have someone responsible for the product or business. So that’s the candidate. The problem starts when we deep dive into the role understanding and find out that Product owner shall not only understand the business but needs an authority to say “NO”. If you don’t, we mostly end up being late, with stress and low product quality.

How the Product Owner shall decide on priorities and how shall they know when to say “NO”? Overall it’s simple. Apply simplicity rule. It’s already in the Agile Manifesto as one of the principles. ‘We maximize the work not done.’ It has its roots in the research saying that 60% of a successfully delivered product is never or rarely used. So why do we keep investing into those features. Isn’t it waste? It is. But it’s hard to say no, so Product Owners keep prioritizing those features. Instead they shall act as investors and evaluate if the expected benefit will be paid off. If yes, do that. If not, let’s start a conversation or a negotiation with the customers about what else can we do to help them with what they need. The functionality they asked for are just one option how to achieve it.

Who is the great Product Owner?

  • The great Product Owner is an investor – imagine you would invest your own money into functionality you prioritize for the next Sprint.
  • The great Product Owner must have an authority to say NO.
  • The great Product Owner must be good at communication, always search for another option how to deliver maximum value to the customers with least possible effort.
  • The great Product Owner shall understand that your customers (internal stakeholders, users, … ) have wishes. Those wishes often contradict with each other so you can’t make them all even if you have unlimited resources. It’s up to you to decide where the highest value is, and skip the rest.
  • The great Product Owner must have business knowledge about the product and understand the customers – it’s not a technical role.
  • The great Product Owner shall have a time to spend with the team to build good relationship with them, and to make sure your team understands the purpose of the product/release/Sprint.

If you don’t have all those, don’t worry. But eventually that’s who you shall become as a Product Owner.

Sprint Planning in 30 minutes

How much time takes your team to finish Sprint Planning? To my experience it could be anything in between of above mentioned 30 minutes and full day. If you are closer to the second option and it feels scary, annoying, waste of time for you, let’s have a look at few recommendations how to cut it out into 30 minutes.

First, let’s see how to run the Sprint Planning itself. I recommend Product Owners to come to the Sprint Planning with physical cards for each User Story. They quickly introduce them, answer questions if needed and then let the team choose out of them. Don’t bring the exact ordered list; let them freely choose from the cards. There are two reasons for that. First, you maximize work done as they can organize themselves in a way they are most efficient, and at the same time there is higher commitment as well. Second, you build a trust between team and Product Owner. You trust them they will choose the right User Story which brings the highest value at the moment. Once the team select the User Stories witch they believe they are able to finish within the next Sprint and put them on Scrum board, Product Owner and Scrum Master can leave and let the team finish the Sprint Planning. During this second phase team will collaboratively split the selected User Stories into maximum one day tasks and revise the Sprint Backlog commitment. After 30 min they are done, have full board of cards and can start working.

If that still feel unbelievable, let’s have a look to the preparation. There are three key recommendations you should do in order to make your planning fast and meaningful. First is for Product Owner. 2-3 days before the Sprint planning let the team know what are your priorities for the next Sprint, so they can have a look and prepare themselves, ask questions, etc. Second is proper Backlog Grooming. The goal of Backlog Grooming is make sure the team understand Product/Release backlog (i.e. all User Stories, Super User Stories, Epics and vision). At this time team do the estimations and help Product Owner to split User Stories which are too big, or add Acceptance Criteria. Once understood, they are ready to be planned to the Sprint.

To summarize it, if you are not able to do such fast planning, improve your preparation (team time to prepare, grooming, pre-planning) so the planning is here not to investigate new functionality but to confirm how much we can make. Doing that, you gain motivated team who is not wasting time at never ending planning, better reliable Sprint plans and higher backlog quality as you are not pushed to do splits and changes at the last moment. Start step by step and continuously decrease your time needed. It’ll go much faster than you would imagine.

Is Product Owner part of the team?

When you ask this question in the companies, you find out that about 30% of teams believe that he or she is not. If you ask why not, you find out that they feel their Product Owners are far away from them, they don’t help them, and they don’t understand them. And I’m not talking about physical distance now. So where is the problem? In many companies, at the beginning of their Agile transformation, they simply move team to Scrum and the Product Managers to Product Owners. What happens? They don’t have a time to be Product Owners as they are responsible for several huge products. Luckily they understand the product, but they have no time to share their understanding at any higher granularity than general ideas or epics. And that’s indeed not enough. Such teams are having a Product Owner Proxy, or Tactical Product Owner who is in reality acting like real Product Owner and don’t miss their business Product Owner. Why is that usually not good? We are missing the “one PO voice” and we are losing the business driven approach in favor of technical point of view. In such environments we are as well missing the push to “maximize work not done”, which is one of the Agile Manifesto principles. That is indeed not good for either team or product.

Then we have about 50% of companies where they believe the Product Owner is part of the team, but he is not responsible for writing User Stories. Why not? Usually because he or she doesn’t understand the technical aspects, so how can he possibly do that? They usually don’t invite him or her to the retrospective either, because… well… he is a team, but retrospective is for development team only. So it’s kind of unclear.

The remaining 20% take their Product Owner as their member. They invite him to the retrospective, they trust each other. If that’s possible, they sit together. If not, they speak with each other often. Such Product Owner relationship is very helpful. Not only for your team, but the product as well.

Measurements are dead, let’s measure

During my career as both Director of Engineering and independent Agile Coach, I’ve been hearing still the same grumble from managers: “We can’t get rid of measurements and KPI’s. How else could we know if the person is performing well, how can we compare people?” and at the same time, grouching from the team members: “We don’t like the individual based KPI’s and measurements, how are we supposed to be a good team when our managers can misuse that against any team member?” It’s surprising but no one likes individual metrics, they all admit they are useless, but they are all afraid to try anything else.

So if you have a bit of courage, you may try this: It’s based on coaching relative scale and is team oriented: 1 stands for 🙁 and 9 stands for 🙂 and it’s great if you add a reason for rating lower than 4 and higher that 6. Firstly, let the Product Owner give a team his number how he is happy with the team.

As a second input, ask Scrum Master to give a number to every team member how much he is happy with this person as a team player. Let them discuss it, but make sure the discussion is not about “why I’ve got 5 instead of 7”, but is focused on future development of that person discussion “what should I do differently so that I’ll get 7 next time”.

And last number goes from the team members. The best you can do for this part is to ask everyone to divide 100$ to all team members except himself. You may worry that they can agree with each other and rotate all the money one by one, or distribute them equally, but that’s not common in real life. The great think on this evaluation is that the team members are giving a feedback to themselves. So every team member gets an answer to the question how do you value my contribution to the team? And if you find out the other team members don’t see any value in your work, you would most likely be very much concerned about that situation and asking how can I do differently so that you value my work more.

Combining those three inputs you will learn much more than from traditional metrics, regardless the company size and culture. It’s working just awesome, but you have to have courage to give it a try.

And when this is just normal for you, you can take it one step ahead. The fully Agile companies are using such tool as the only one appraisal tool across the company. No other bonuses than those distributed by employees to the other employees. So in such company, if you feel you would like to appreciate the receptionist, give her some part of your bonus sum. The other one can be for your colleague, another part for a developer from a different team who helped you with some issue. And when you are afraid it’s too crazy for you, I would like to remind you that we are only talking about bonus distribution, not the whole salary. When you do so, you will increase team cooperation over individual heroes work, and openness and transparency over politics and gossiping. And it would be fun. If you still don’t know, start with Appreciation cards. Make them available and encourage people to give them to each other. Even by that you will learn a lot about yourself, your team and the whole organization ecosystem.

Product Owner Development Model

What is the difference between requirements, use-cases and User Stories? I’ve been struggling with that question a lot. On one hand it is easy. It’s something completely different. On the other hand, that’s not anything which would help people to understand the difference on their way to implement Agile.
After some time working as Agile Coach, I created this Product Owner development model. It’s focused on product creation and Backlog item definition process.

Level one: User Story is just a special format of a sentence

At this basic level of understanding we are very close to the requirement-like specification. We keep the backlog in the Word document, as we anyway wrote very long sentences and extensive document chapters about the functionality. There is often huge mix of current functionality we want to keep, and new functions. The only change we do with that requirement document is to change/add User Story sentence instead of general name. So we get something like “As a MyCompany, I want new tariff, so that my customers are happier” followed by 2 pages long text description what the “tariff” exactly means. Such User Story may survive at team board for several Sprints without getting done. Surprising, isn’t it? We wrote User Story and it didn’t help!

So this stage is about documents. We create PowerPoint presentations to describe product goals and vision, we use complex roadmaps to define timeframe and we have written long specification documents to describe functionality. The more we write, the better product we have. The understanding of the role of Product Owner is very limited, decisions are often taken as a board of people without real product success responsibility.

Level two: We have ‘bigger fish to fry’, than write User Stories

At this stage we already understand that we have to describe our User Stories better. The team needs higher granularity and detail. But we don’t have time to write User Stories, so that we delegate that unimportant work to some administrative position called business analyst, business requirement specialist, business delivery manager, development team or whoever else is around. We don’t have a time to write such ‘technical’ details. It’s not important for us. Just make sure you will deliver it on time. We have bigger fish to fry. We have to talk to the customer. It’s more than enough to discuss our product ideas and high-level visions. We are responsible for Backlog, and yes, we prioritize it. However, the level of Epics is just about the right level of details.
So this stage is about big high-level decisions and quantity. We already have a Product Owner position, although that person is not often seen. Instead we have the army of people, who are willing to help official Product Owner with creating as many User Stories as you can imagine. What if we need that functionality in the future? Let’s describe all we can possibly do. And if we cover any potential functionality, it must be successful.

Level three: User Story is use-case

Here we finally got it. It’s about functionality slice, it should be INVEST. We have to make it concrete, understandable, and testable end to end functionality. Isn’t that easy? It’s like a use-case, isn’t it? Well, unfortunately, sorry to say that, no. There is a huge difference between use-case and User Story. So what’s the difference? Use-case is end to end functionality which defines what user does and how he is using the product, while the User Story defines only a new/changed functionality. We don’t repeat the current functions anymore and we focus on the changes only.
This stage is already user focused. We start describing different roles. We focus on functionality end to end. However, it’s still not simple and not clear enough. And it’s still not what we expect from the Product Owner.

Level four: We will design one big User Story and copy-paste the rest

This stage looks already pretty good. We have understood that every User Story has three parts – Who, What, and Why, and we think about all three of them. However, we haven’t still understood that every single User Story has its unique value, and it makes sense to invest an energy into individual detail User Story creation process. We are now spending energy describing Super User Stories (smaller and much more concrete pieces than Epics are, although nor small enough to be done in one Sprint yet.) We have great tools, which unfortunately offer a copy-paste feature. So we heavily use it to save our time.

This stage is about User Stories which already create some picture in your head once you read or hear them, but they are very similar to each other and hard to be recognized. We already have spent some time to investigate reasons ‘why’ for bigger chunks of functionality, and we are very happy about it, so we use it at every detail User Story which we create from it – just copy and paste.

Step five: Understand of business value and impact

Finally, we understand that it is worth of investing our time to every single User Story. And we are even looking at it more than once. We reprioritize individual User Stories and not only big Epics. Every User Story has a special role or persona. We have spent time and energy defining every one of them. We encourage ourselves to throw away or postpone User Stories already written, if they don’t match our product/release charter (vision, goals, success measures, timeframe).

We focus on business value and “maximizing work not done” which is one of the core Agile Manifesto twelve principles. We keep our product simple. We try to visualize business value for every User Story in the “Why” part of the formula, so that it helps us to decide on Backlog priorities.
Furthermore, we compare every new User Story with product/release charter and discuss how that User Story contributes to the defined goals and vision. Before we write the complete functionality, we try to measure impact, i.e. if the goal of Epic1 is to limit the traffic through the component A, than individual User Stories may propose different solutions how to filter that traffic out. In traditional management we finish most of them if not completely all. In this stage of this model, we try first to measure the impact by identifying of the percentage of possibly filtered traffic by each solution proposed. And then implement just the ones which have real impact with respect of our goal to limit the traffic. We may identify many great ideas, but we stop implementing as soon as the goal is achieved. At that time we don’t need any other functionality and we can move on to the next important area.

This final Product Owner Development model stage is about business value and impact. The less is more. Product Owner is feeling strong ownership and responsibility over the Product Backlog and individual User Stories. There might be people to help him as Product Owners rarely works alone, nevertheless he understands the importance of his role in defining even the small functional slices as User Stories are. Finally, in this stage the Product Owner is here to shrink possible functionality to the minimum which brings just enough business value. Product Owner must negotiate the functionality and focus more on understanding the customer real needs than all their wishes to come true.

Summary

To summarize it, Product Owner Development model is useful tool which helps you to understand where you are with your Agile Product management and product ownership. It also shows you the way where you shall continue and which areas you shall focus. Theoretically you don’t have to go through this model one by one, but it is very likely you will pass all next layers from the one where you are now even if you stay at that one just a very short time.