Story Generators

iStock-913773630small-2019-03-22-17-35.jpg

Recently I’ve been looking again at Jobs to be Done and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). I increasingly see them as story generators and a potential solution to the tyranny of the backlog I described last time.

When I first looked at Jobs to be Done (and OKRs actually) I wondered if they constituted a fourth, top, level on top of Epics, Stories and Tasks. I’ve long argued against having more than three levels of things to do (or requirements as we used to call them.) There are big meaningful things to do (stories), really big things which we don’t as yet understand but look really valuable (epics) and the immediate small things to do right now (tasks).

Actually, I’d rather think most things can be dealt with by two levels and one level is the even better. So adding a fourth “even bigger” thing on top of Epics just felt wrong. Technologists (like myself) have a tendency to map everything into hierarchies; inverted trees with fractal like branches. But not everything is, or should be, a hierarchy, mapping the world into a tree like structure can add complications.

Unlike stories (and epics and tasks) Jobs to be Done don’t really lend themselves to the transactional “Done”. While you could put a Job all the way to Done on your Kanban board and track it from “To do” to “Done” in reality the customer job still exists. Sure you’ve improved it but you can improve it again – another example of Stable Intermediate Forms. This seems to be the great potential of Jobs to be Done, they keep on giving: as much as you improve your product to help with the job you can still improve it some more.

So each time you analyse the Job to be Done you should be able to find more stories to deliver to improve it. Hence the Job to be Done is not a “story” to do, it is a Story Generator. Every time you look at the job to be done you find more stories, every time you examine the result of the latest improvement you find more stories. The job will never be done. Some might see that as a bad thing but that also means the job presents a stable focus for ongoing work.

The same might be true of OKRs but in a slightly different way. Because the objective is reviewed periodically – every quarter or so – it lacks the continuity of Jobs to be Done but perhaps allows the team to switch targets, maybe it is stable enough.

The key results may well be stories in their own right, or they may be things which lead to stories. Either way one can expect some key results to be achieved and marked as done regularly. As they fall they are either replaced by new key results building towards the objective (which themselves lead to stories) or new key results are added for new objectives.

I’m sure there are other story generators out there but the key thing for me is not the mechanism but the existence of the generator. Once you have a story generator you do not need a big backlog of things to do. The generator will replenish the backlog whenever you need more stories – either because you have done them or the value has fallen.

Using a generator removes the need to have a big backlog which removes the tyranny of the backlog. The team are now free(r) to concentrate on delivering value towards their objective.

Finally, I wonder if anyone has used both OKRs and Jobs to be Done together? Right now they feel like alternative generators to me, having both seems like a bit like overkill. Although I accept that maybe OKRs are more corporate and Jobs to be Done are more product focused. Anyone got any experience using them together?


Like this post? – Like to receive these posts by e-mail?

Subscribe to my newsletter & receive a free eBook “Xanpan: Team Centric Agile Software Development”

Check out my latest books – Continuous Digital and Project Myopia – and now Project Myopia audio edition

Tyranny of the backlog

BurningDownTheBacklog-2019-03-14-16-19.jpg

The backlog is a great idea: all the things we think the team will build, or perhaps: things they might build, and it might contain other work, like evaluation or reviews. Yes, the backlog is a great idea, all the stuff the team might do, well perhaps not all, it is seldom complete, after all, as they say “stuff happens”.

The truth is: backlogs have a tendency to grow. All too often I find teams who are struggling under the weight of their backlog. They can’t spare time to do experiments or learn something because there is stuff to do. The backlog becomes a tyrannical ruler and all of it MUST BE DONE.

Look at that hypothetical burn-down chart above. By sprint 15 the team is well on its way to completing all the original work. But the amount of work they need to do is higher than when they started. It is not as if the team have been doing nothing. Look at the next chart, it shows how, most weeks, more work is added than is done.

DoneVAdded-2019-03-14-16-19.jpg

To my mind finding more work isn’t a problem, indeed teams should be finding more work. Problems stem from the fact that backlogs – and tracking mechanisms like burn-down charts – try to full-fill competing needs.

  1. The backlog is used as a store of ideas for work to do. This makes sense, you can’t do everything today so postpone some to the future. A backlog allows you t move some things from peak time to off-peak, although software development teams rarely seem to see off-peak time.

Plus, having a backlog makes it easier to say:

“Thanks for your suggestion Fred, I’ve added it to the backlog, I’ll let you know when we get to it.”

Rather than:

“Thanks for your e-mail Fred, we deleted it once we stopped laughing.”

It makes sense to give a new idea a quick once-over. But doing a proper analysis is time consuming:Discussing what is being asked for takes time, as does setting acceptance criteria are. And then there is business value to assess and other work priorities to consider. Therefore, put it in the backlog and do all that later (if it ever gets scheduled.)

Without a backlog we would be forced to make a binary decision: do it and do it now or reject it.

In fact the backlog can become a natural filter: as stories age in the backlog some items will jexpire. Unfortunately many Product Owners don’t feel they have the authority to delete old requests so the backlog grows and grows.

I call such a “constipated backlog”: work goes in but very little comes out. When the only way for items to leave the backlog is by doing them the rate of return falls.

  1. The backlog fills another role because so many teams are still expected to meet project success criteria which ask for “everything to be done.” The backlog becomes a tyrant when people believe that one day it will all be done. Worse still, some people plan using this assumption.

People want to know when “it” will be done, how long it will take and how much it will cost. It takes time to answer those questions and if the backlog is growing any answer is going to be wrong.

In fact, it is probably wrong to think everything will ever be done. Unless one freezes the backlog and refuses to add new work then it is likely that low value items will be postponed while new, more valuable items, will take priority.

As an industry we need to drop the idea that a backlog will ever be done: the backlog as repository of ideas is at odds with the backlog as a measure of completeness.

Think about it this way: some of the items in the backlog are very valuable. Some items are worth very little. Some will cost more effort than the benefit they bring. If we do everything then the low value and the high value will all get done. Conversely, if we encourage new ideas and weed-out as many low value items as possible our rate of return will be higher.

But very few teams follow this model. Many more teams are slaves to the backlog, and their quest for an empty backlog is doomed.


Like this post?

Like to receive these posts by e-mail?

Subscribe to my newsletter & receive a free eBook “Xanpan: Team Centric Agile Software Development”