Agile Requirements

Agile Planning - I have a need a need for speed

Working at Disney a number of years ago was in so many ways transformative for me (not sure why I left) because it provided me with an opportunity to work with an organization that needed to get better at delivering software for our partners and we ended up choosing Agile as our path. Disney was the place where I had the opportunity to help build an Agile process from Requirements to Delivery and what we discovered was that we needed to develop an effective planning process that allowed us to build a solid backlog of work before we just started coding.  I here that so often in organizations that are just starting to adopt Agile.  I think a statement I heard recently is descriptive of organizations that just start coding - Shoot and Point.

Disney is a largely creative driven organization (Not surprising) and because of this we typically had a disconnect between our creative (UX) groups and the Product Delivery teams.  The UX team primarily worked independently of the PD teams and as was the case when I arrived, UX would deliver a creative design that didn't align to our technical capabilities.  This is a common issue in today's web development environment.

Our first 'Release' Planing went very poorly and after a round of retrospectives we came up with a format that at first pass you would say wasn't Agile (trust me we used that phrase a lot in the early days of our becoming Agile).  But in the end this first step of Discovery ended up being what I believe is the most critical element of being able to go fast in Agile.

The basic process that we ended up with was as follows:

  • Pre-Discovery - Sr level PD, PO, UX, Marketing and other Stakeholders would review a specific new feature that was being considered. The group would utilize several tools such as Mind Mapping to understand the scope, parameters and potential dependencies at a high level.  If the feature work was approved then we went to the next phase.
  • Discovery - Depending uponthe the size of the potential project Scrum teams and extended stakeholders would meet to go through a low-level review for that feature development.  For many of our larger efforts it was not uncommon for us to sequester the teams into a room to work through the entire effort, UX to QA to Delivery.
    • Process
      • Kick off - Have your PM or PO along with the key stakeholder(s) of the effort describe WHY this feature is so important.  We learned in our process development that it helped our PD teams to have an understanding as to why this feature was important to the organization.  It helped them feel connected to the value that was being delivered and not simply code jockeys running a race.
      • Competitive Review - Another great exercise was to have the entire team go out and find competitive features that we either did or didn't like and describe why.  This helped the next phase of our Discovery process as we worked to define what our feature sets would ultimately look like
      • UX and Story Development - This was the primary scope of our Agile workshops.  Typically led by the UX lead for the project we would begin developing low-fi wireframes and discuss the issues, constraints and code complexity that the low-fi would entail.  We discovered in this process that we could work through the types of issues that come much later in a typical product delivery effort.
        • Outcomes -
          • UX ended up with designs that they could utilize to develop prototypes that would be used in User testing prior to any significant development work being completed.  This allowed changes to UX to be found at the very beginning of the PD process rather than at the end when refactoring consumes a much larger amount of time and leads to lower quality of code.
          • PD ended up with a solid design at the beginning of the PD process which led to high quality code and higher levels test automation.
          • QA ended upon with an ability to write higher quality acceptance criteria which lead to high quality in the delivery and higher levels of test automation (sensing a theme here?)
          • User Story development was done during the Discovery phase and with it I was able to have a fairly accurate model to predict the number of stories at the beginning of the Discovery phase (typically between 100-120 higher level Epics, we strove for stories to be between 21-34 points in this phase as PD would start fairly quickly after the discovery phase 2-3 weeks) and how many that would translate into for a full project (typically 350 - 400).  This provided me with input as to how many BDD acceptance criteria would come out of this as we used a marker to determine when a story should be broken down - More than 7 variables in the BDD would be an indication that it's time to think about breaking down the story and more than 14 tests in a single test scenario would also trigger the conversation of whether to add a scenario to a story or create a new story.
            • Benefit - Keeping your BDD test automation in small increments makes it much easier to understand what broke, who probably broke it and what is needed to fix it.

I know this doesn't 'Sound' Agile (like the name of my company), but in my experience doing this small amount of work up front does provide teams the base to go really fast once the PD process begins.

I have used this process now for many years and when we do it right it's like writing a symphony, all of the moving pieces make beautiful music.  When it isn't done right, then all you get is noise.

This process probably does work for larger and more complex organizations over small organizations, but really would you start building a house with no blueprints and no idea of what you wanted?  If you had builders just show up and you told them I need a house to live in and I need it fast you will get that, but I doubt it will be anything that you want. And in reality it wouldn't be done fast as they probably wouldn't have the right materials scheduled to arrive at the right time.  I have my roofing supplies but the foundation company can't some for a month, see what I am getting at?

Slow down a bit, understand what you want, how to get it and then go fast to get it.

BDD - Step by Step Process Tutorial

As you might tell from some of my blog topics I'm a huge believer in BDD, not just as a means to automation but more importantly as a process that helps us define requirements more accurately. When we move into an Agile delivery model, many individuals struggle to understand how they are supposed to document everything that they used to put in their Product Requirements documents (or a whole host of other acronyms).  These documents formed the basis of our engagement with the business and with the teams that would ultimately deliver what the business thought they were asking for in the PRD.

There is an interesting game that has many flavors such as Social Telephone game, that for me, makes clear the issue with large documents that multiple groups need to review.  Each of us is individually focused on the things that we think are important and we often have different interpretations of the written word.  And as such as we work to deliver in our silos we move towards an uncommon understanding of what is being built.  I would argue that many 'defects' that are found are actually poorly interpreted requirements.

For those of you in highly regulated industries you know what I'm talking about.  The endless hours spent reading a single paragraph trying to derive the real intent and meaning behind the written word is exhausting and fraught with peril because if we get it wrong there are penalties and mad scrambles to implement a hack to make it work the 'right' way.

Software development is made hard because of these communication differences, be they cultural, language or other, they exist and they make it difficult to come to a collective understanding of what is being asked for.

User stories help break down this barrier as they define small pieces of a larger whole and place a value statement so that we understand WHY what we are being asked to build is important.  Many teams writing user stories leave off that important 'so that' statement.  Leaving off 'so that' leads to so what?

Behavior Driven Development, for me, changed the way that I looked at defining requirements because it removed the business language of things such as the business requires this, or the feature shall do that.  The statements sound powerful yet deliver little in real context for the teams to work from.

Breaking down user stories with BDD still leaves the team to work with a non-technical domain language and then provides a clear method of defining the behavior (positive and negative) for the teams to work from.

The power of context with the respective speed and quality it delivers can't be denied.  However don't be fooled that this is easy, it isn't.  Agile is extremely disciplined, something many miss on their way to the Agile party.  Done right it can take your delivery processes to new heights, done wrong it becomes just another new fangled process that doesn't work.

Below is a BDD tutorial that can get you started on your way to learning how to build contextually rich user stories.  Good luck and have fun!

BDD Training

BDD - A team oriented activity

Probably one of the harder elements of Agile that teams struggle with is the art of collaboration. Our experiences over the years have taught us to treat functional groups such as BA's, Devs and QA as separate entities each with their own perspective and each distrustful of the others abilities to deliver.  How many times in QA do we hear the phrase 'Just toss it over to QA and let them deal with it'. 

We forget so easily that what we deliver for a customer is the sum total of our efforts, not just of individuals.  The Chicago Bulls were a good team with just Michael Jordan, but only when they were able to blend ALL of the skills of the team were they able to win championships.  Scrum is about team.
Getting your Scrum team to actually work as a team is one of the key efforts that everyone needs to make and BDD is a way that can help teams  work collaboratively to  build what I call contextually rich user stories.
You can't rely on just one or two people to write user stories and acceptance criteria as there is a limit to the context of what any one person can know.  With ever growing complexity in business and technology the more people who can collaborate the more context that is captured in the story.
Does it sound like heavy overhead?  It shouldn't.  I'm sure you have all spent hours pouring over Business or Product Development documents trying to glean enough information to build a design that will work for the next 6 months (which we know doesn't happen on any planet in this solar system).  We've always spent time trying to understand what is being asked for but in Agile we spend smaller increments of time on writing details that matter.
The most successful teams I've worked with have adopted this type of approach for building out BDD acceptance criteria:
  • Start of Sprint -
  1. During the first two days of the Sprint the QA lead and Product Owner work together to develop (and or complete) BDD acceptance criteria for the next upcoming sprint.
  2. By day three the development team should start delivering stories to QA for testing.  Additionally QA can begin their automation efforts via BDD examples with tools such as Cucumber, Fitnesse, Capybara....
  3. The engineering team needs to plan to complete all of the story development so that the last two days are open for them to  review the acceptance criteria and make changes/suggestions to the PO.  The team is also completing their designs for the upcoming sprint during the last two days and fixing any bugs that are discovered in testing.
BDD Planning Cycle v1.00
The key to this process is that before the team commits to the sprint they must all review and agree to the scope of the BDD acceptance test examples.  Without this discipline, the scope of the story and sprint will not be as precise.
As I've told my teams in the past, moving to writing BDD acceptance criteria is a mind shift in how you view both requirements and testing.  Both Development and QA can consume them for their individual efforts, but in the end, if they work against what is defined in the BDD they will both be on the same page functionally.
BDD takes the guess work out of what is being developed and that's a good thing.  For Sprints to go quickly and with high quality,  teams have to understand exactly what they are doing.  To steal from one of my favorite phrases from Bull Durham 'Don't think, it only hurts the ball club'.
BDD provides clarity for the entire team and makes demos go smoothly.
Ensuring that the team provides input, review and commitment to BDD acceptance criteria keeps everyone focused on doing just what is needed.
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