Tag Archives: user-stories

Facilitating the Elephant Carpaccio Exercise

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One of the best exercises I know of on how to learn and practice User Story slicing techniques is the so called Elephant Carpaccio exercise. At Spotify it is something of a staple as it it is (often) used when introducing new employees (now a days).

The exercise is about creating a quoting application which includes different markets, tax and discounts. If you have not done this before your initial slices will probably be pretty large. The aha moment is when you realize how SMALL you can actually make them. You can can dry run this exercise by only creating and discussing the backlog. It’s also very friendly to actually do it for real by programing the application; even excel can be used to do that.

Henrik Kniberg has written an excellent guide on how to facilitate this exercise. Here’s my slides based on that presentation to make it a little bit easier to remember and run it in a classroom.

Let the User Story Flow

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One of my biggest surprises when I first met the squads I where going to work with at Spotify was that none of them were using User Stories. At first I observed to see their alternative. Unfortunately there was none. Instead most of the work got done as big chunks of work (what I would tend to call Epics) that was sliced into a todo-list of tasks (named that way by the developers) and also divided according different platforms.

Squad focus on technical tasks

A typical board contained one or more business cases and lanes for each developer/platform with tasks that were executed upon. These big “busses” where on the board blocking other works for weeks, which of course meant there needed to exist one or more emergency lanes for all expedite work (in the long run, most work).

This is a setup that does not foster collaboration, focus on value and art-of-the-possible. From an agile fluence point of view I would say it is a way of working that does not even reach fluence level 1 (Christian and I will describe agile fluence in more depth in a follow up blog post). From my experience focusing on User Stories is a great way of fostering the above values, and reach fluence level 1.

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Lean Canvas – an hypotheses board

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As so many others I’m inspired by the book Lean Startup. The idea of experimenting with your business model and deliver just the bare stuff needed to validate (or actually try to refute) your business hypothesis is so enticing. But how do you do that when you are one of 50 or 100 teams? How do you do that when the teams are not even using User Stories? How do you do that when daily work is done on a Kanban board only showing tasks?
Lean Canvas

One part of a possible solution is to find a way of visualizing the business case. A popular approach has become setting up a business board, often called a Lean Canvas. I wanted to try something like that. But going trough all the different variants I could find, no one was good enough in itself. I wanted to get the same feeling as with User Stories: a simple formula that everyone can understand and use as soon as the formula is presented.

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Steve Bockmans team estimation

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Estimation of the effort to implement and deliver a set of functionality is an important but not always the most fun part of product development. Estimations are done at different detail levels during the project, for example the high level story estimation and the low level task estimation. It is a few years since I did task estimation; many times it is a waste of time doing low level estimations, so in the following text I will describe a technique that I like when estimating the user stories.

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The Product Owner team

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In my opinion, the Product Owner (PO) role is the most demanding one in Scrum, since the PO needs to have so many talents and you rarely find all of them in one single person.

You need to know

  • the business (what makes money for the company)
  • the end users (what makes them spend their money)
  • the stake holders (what drives them)
  • the development team (how software is made).

You also need to know how to translate all of the above into user stories. On top of that, many POs are also responsible for finding funding for their product and development team within the company.

It’s very difficult to find one single person that does all this well, so in my current team we formed a PO team instead.

Our Product Owner team consist of two people: a business analyst and a project manager. This has turned out to be a really good combination.

The business analyst specializes in turning customer and stake holder needs into requirements. In our case, requirements are expressed as user stories, usually in the popular form “As a <role> I want to <do something>, so that <explanation why>”. Writing   user stories doesn’t come naturally to everyone, it requires practice and skills, so it’s really good to have the business analyst working with the stake holders documenting requirements this way.

To be able to write consistent user stories, our business analyst, working with the stake holders,  has made a domain model explaining all the concepts used and their relations. This model is not a data model for implementation, it’s more of a dictionary defining what we mean when we discuss various aspects of the application. This has proven to be very useful.

In essence, in our PO team our business analyst is responsible for the content of the product backlog. Every time requirements are captured and put into user stories they are reviewed (or written) by him.

The project manager in the PO team also works with the stake holders, but discusses priorities, funding and external dependencies (such as roll out of new functionality in the organization). This requires a different set of skills compared to doing business analysis. This is about in which order and when things are done and delivered.

In essence, in our PO team, the project manager is responsible for the release plan in the product backlog as well as ensuring funding for the user stories. In this organization it’s the stake holders that have the budget and not the PO.

Our PO team works in pairs having two different types of backlog grooming meetings with the stake holders every week.

The first meeting is about the content of the product backlog. They go through all the user stories clarifying, adding and removing stories as new opportunities come up and other become obsolete.

The second meeting is about prioritizing the product backlog and making a release plan for the next three sprints. Market windows, campaigns and product launches are taken into account when creating an absolute priority for each user story (that will last at least until the next meeting).

As I have described in an earlier post, the product backlog is posted on a wall and stored electronically in a PowerPoint document.

Having the PO team working as a pair has proven to be very successful. Each member contributes with his skills and as we know from pair programming two heads think better than one.

Q: Who has the final word about the priorities?
A: The project manager, since he is responsible for the release plan and funding.

Q: Are the ever confilcts between the two?
A: Not more than usual when two people discuss.

Q: If the team receives a task/user story by someone outside the sprint, who do they talk to?
A: The project manager, since it’s a priority issue and it affects the current sprint and the release plan.