User Stories Masterclass: October & November

Better User Stories
As a Product Owner I want to write better stories

A success story from the dark days of lock-down: my online User Stories Masterclass. The Masterclass is running again in October and November. The October run is the half-day version on the 26th, while November is four 90 minutes sessions, one a week for four weeks, November 9, 16, 23, 30th

Both these versions have run before and I have multiple reviews via Google. The mid change this time is I’m working with Edinburgh Agile who are handling ticket sales and who have added a certificate and exam.

There is an early bird discount and 10USERSTORY9YP will get you an extra 10% off.

The big mistake with Platform Product Owners and what to do about it

From time to time I come across software platform team – also called infrastructure teams. Such teams provide software which is used by other teams rather than end customers as such they are one step, or even more, removed from customers.

Now I will admit part of me doesn’t want these teams to exist at all but let’s save that conversation for another day. I acknowledge that in creating these teams organisations act with the best intentions and there is a logic to the creation of such teams.

It is what happens with the Product Owners that concerns me today.

Frequently these teams struggle with product owners.

Sometimes the teams don’t have product owners at all: after all these teams don’t have normal customers, they exist to do work which will enhance the common elements and therefore benefit other teams who will benefit customers. So, the thinking goes, coders should just do what they think is right because they know the technology best.

Sometimes an architect is given the power of product ownership: again the thinking is that as the team is delivering technology to technologists someone who understand the technology is the best person to decide what will add value.

And sometimes a product owner exists but they are a developer, they may even still have development responsibilities and have to split their time between the two roles. Such people obtain their role not because of their marketing skills, their knowledge of customers or because they are good at analysing user needs. Again it is assumed that they will know what is needed because they know the technology.

In my book all three positions are wrong, very wrong.

A platform team absolutely needs a customer focused product owner. A product owner who can appreciate the team have two tiers of customers. First other technology teams, and then beyond them actual paying customers. This means understanding the benefit to be delivered is more difficult, it should not be the case of ducking the issue, it should be a case of working harder.

If the platform team are to deliver product enhancements that allow other teams to deliver benefit to customers then it is not a case of “doing what the technology needs.” It is, more than ever, a case of doing things that will deliver customer benefit.

Therefore, platform teams need the strongest and best product owners who have the keenest sense of customer understanding and the best stakeholder management skills because understanding and prioritising the work of the platform team is a) more difficult and b) more important.

A platform team that is not delivering what other teams need does more damage to more teams and customers – in terms of benefit not delivered – than a regular team that just delivers to customers. Sure the PO will need to understand the technology and the platform but that is always the case.

So, to summarise and to be as clear as possible: Platform teams need the best Product Owners you have available; making a technical team member, one without marketing and/or product ownership experience, the product owner is a mistake.

What ever happened to #NoProjects? – post-projects

“I’m frankly amazed at how far the #NoProjects throwaway Twitter comment travelled. But even today, in the bank where I work, the same problems caused by project-oriented approach to software are manifest as the problems I saw at xxxx xxx years ago.” Joshua Arnold

Once upon a time, 2 or 3 years back, #NoProjects was a hot topic – so hot it was frequently in flames on Twitter. For many of the #NoProjects critics it was little different from #NoEstimates. It sometimes felt that to mention either on Twitter was like pulling the pin and tossing a hand grenade into a room.

I never blocked anyone but I did mentally tune out several of those critics and ignore their messages. However I should say thank you to them, in the early days they did help flesh out the argument. In the later days were a great source of publicity. If we wanted to publicise an event one only had to add #NoProjects to a tweet and stand back.

And now?

There are at least 3 books on the subject: #NoProjects by Evan Laybourn and Shane Hastie, Live happily ever after without Projects by Dimitri Favre and my own Project Myopia, plus the companion Continuous Digital. (You can get Project Myopia for free by signing up to the email version of this blog.)

The hashtag still gets used but far less often, the critics have fallen back and rarely give battle and as I’ve said before #NoProjects won. But, as a recent conversation on the old #NoProject Slack channel asked: why do we still have projects? why does nobody activity say they do #NoProjects?

In part that is because No doesn’t tell you what to do, it tells you what not to do, so what do you do?

In retrospect we didn’t have the language to express what we were trying to say, over time with the idea floating around we found that language: Outcome oriented, Teams over Projects, Products over projects, Product centric, Stable teams and similar expressions all convey the same idea: its not about doing a project, its not even about doing agile, it is about creating sustainable outcomes and business advantage.

The same thinking is embedded in AgendaShift, “The Spotify Model”, SAFe and other frameworks. These are continuity models rather than the stop-go project model. One might call all these ideas and models post-project thinking.

In many ways the hashtag died because we found better, and less confrontational, language to express ourselves.

There was a growing, if implicit, understanding that this is digital not IT, it is about digital business, and that means continuity. The project model of IT is dead.

Which begs the question: why aren’t these approaches more widespread?

The thinking is there, the argument has been made against projects and for alternative models, and you would be hard pressed to find a significant advocate of agile who would argue differently but companies are still, overwhelmingly, project oriented.

When I’m being cynical I’d say, like agile, it is a generational thing. The current generation of leaders – or at least those in positions of management authority – build their success on delivering IT projects. Only as this generation relinquishes leadership will things change.

Optimistically I remember what science fiction author William Gibson once said:

“The future is here, its just unevenly spread around”

For digital start-ups this isn’t an issue: they are born post-project, they create digital products, the business and technology are inseparable. The project model is counter to their DNA.

Some legacy companies have consciously gone post-project and are recognising the benefits: the capitalist model suggests these early movers 9 risk takers – will gain the most. Other legacy companies have adopted parts of the continuous model but cling to the project model too, some will make the full jump, some, most?, will fall back.

Unfortunately Covid, the hang over of bail-outs from the 2007-8 financial crash and failure to break up monopolies (Google, Facebook, Amazon specifically) mean capitalism is not exerting its usual Darwinian force.

Projects will exist for a long time yet, #NoProjects will continue small scale disruption but in the long term the post-project organizations will win out. Hopefully I’ll be alive to see it but I have no illusion, the rest of my career will be spent undoing the damage the project model does.

But our users don’t want to change

A good question came into my mailbox:

“Much of the writing I’ve seen assumes that software can be shipped directly into the hands of customers to create value (hence the “smaller packages, more often” approach). My experience has been that especially with new launches or major releases, there needs to be a threshold of minimum functionality that needs to be in place.”

Check your phone. Is it set to auto-update apps? Is your desktop OS set to auto-update? Or do you manual choose when to update?

Look at the update notes on phone apps from the likes of Uber, Slack, SkyScanner, the BBC and others. They say little more than “we update our apps regularly.”

Today people are used to technology auto-changing on them. They may not like it but do they like a big change any more?

My guess is that most people don’t even notice those updates. When you batch up software releases users see lots of changes at once, when you release them as a regular stream of small updates then most go unnoticed.

Still, users will see some updates change things, and they will not like some of these. But how long do you want to hide these updates from your users?

The question that needs asking is: what is the cost of an update? The vast majority of updates are quick, easy, cheap and painless.

Of course people don’t like updates which introduce a new UI, a new payment model or which demand you uninstall an earlier app but when updates are easy and bring benefits – even benefits you don’t see – they happily accept them.

And remember, the alternative to 100 small updates is one big update where people are more likely to see changes.

If your updates are generally good why hold them back? And if your updates are going in the wrong direction shouldn’t you change something? If you run scared of giving your users changes then something is wrong.

Nor is it just apps. Most people (in Europe at least) use telco supplied handsets and when the telco calls up and says “Would you like a new handset at no additional cost?” people usually say Yes. That is how telcos keep their customers.

The question continues,

“there needs to be coordination across the company (e.g. training people from marketing, sales, channel partners, customer/ internal support, and so on). There is also the human element – the capacity to absorb these changes. As a user of tech, I’m not sure I could work (well) with a product where features were changing, new ones being added frequently (weekly or even monthly), etc.”

If every software update was introducing a big change then these would be problems. But most updates don’t. Most introduce teeny-tiny changes.

Of course sometimes things need to change. The companies which do this best invest time and energy in making these painless. For example, Google often offers a “try our new beta version” for months before an update. And for months afterwards they provide a “use the old interface option.”

The best companies invest in user experience design too. This can go along way to removing the need for training.

Just because a new feature is released doesn’t mean people have to use it. For starters new changes can be released but disabled. Feature toggles are not only a way of managing source code branches but they also allow new features to be released silently and switched on when everyone is ready. This allows for releases to be de-risked without the customer seeing.

And when they are switched on they can be switched on for a few users at a time. Feedback can be gathered and improvements made before the next release.

That can be co-ordinated with training: make the feature toggle user switchable, everyone gets the new software and as they complete the training they can choose to switch it on.

Now marketing… yes, marketeers do like the big bang release – “look at us, we have something shiny and new!”

You could leave lots of features switched off until your marketeers are ready to make a big bang. That also reduces the problem of marketers needing to know what will be ready when so they known when to launch a campaign.

Or you could release updates without any fuss and market when you have the critical mass.

Or you could change your marketing approach: market a stream of constant improvements rather than occasional big changes.

Best of all market the capabilities of your thing without mentioning features: market what the app or system allows you to do.

For years I’ve been hearing “business people” bemoan developers who “talk technical” but I see exactly the same thing with marketeers. Look at Sony Televisions, what is the “picture processor X1” ? And why should I care? I can’t remember when I last changed the contrast on my television so the “Backlight master drive” (what ever that is) means nothing to me.

Or, look at Samsung mobile phones, 5G, 5G, 5G – what do I care about 5G? What does 5G allow me to do that I can’t with my current phone?

Drill down, look at the Samsung Galaxy lineup: CPU speed, CPU type, screen size, resolution, RAM, ROM – what do I care? How does any of that help me? – Stop throwing technical details at me!

Don’t market features market solution. Tell me what “job to be done” the product the addresses, tell me how my life will be improved. Marketing a solution rather than features decouple marketing from the upgrade cycle.

So sure, people don’t like technology change – I’ll tell you a story in my next blog. But when technology change brings benefits are they still resistant?

Now, with modern technology, with agile and continuous delivery, technology can change faster than business functions like training and marketing. We can either choose to slow technology down or we can change those functions to work differently – not necessarily faster but differently in a way that is compatible with agile technology change.

These kind of tensions are common in businesses which move across to agile style working. A lot of company think agile applies to the “software engine room” and the rest of the business can carry on as before. Unfortunately they have released the Agile Virus – agile working has introduced a set of tensions into the organization which must either be embraced or killed.

Once again technology is disruptive.

Perhaps, if the marketing or training department are insisting on big-bang releases maybe it is them who should be changing. Maybe, just maybe, they need to rethink their approach, maybe they could learn a thing or two about agile and work with differently with technology teams.

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Regular releases reduce risk, increase value

“If you’re not embarrassed by the product when you launch, you’ve launched too late.” Reid Hoffman, founder LinkedIn

Years ago I worked for a software company supplying Vodafone, Verizon, Nokia, etc. The last thing those companies wanted was to update the software on their engineers PC every months, let alone every week!

I was remembering this episode when I was drafting what will be my next post (“But our users don’t want to change”) and thought it was worth saying something about how regular releases change the risk-reward equation.

When you only release occasionally there is a big incentive to “get it right” – to do everything that might be needed and to remove every defect whether you think those changes are needed or not. When you release occasionally second chances don’t happen for weeks or months. So you err on the side of caution and that caution costs.

Regularly releases changes that equation. Now second chances come around often, additions and fixes are easy. Now you can err on the side of less and that allows you to save time and money.

The ability to deliver regularly – every two weeks as a baseline, every day for high performing teams – is more important than the actual deliveries. Releasable is more important than released. The actual question of whether to release or not is ultimately a question for business representatives to decide.

But, being releasable on a very regular basis is an indicator of the teams technical ability and the innate quality of the thing being built. Teams which are always asking for “more time” may well have a low quality product (lots of bugs to fix) or have something to hide.

The fact that a team can, and hopefully do, release (to live) massively reduces the risk involved. When software is only released at the end – and usually only tested before that end – then risk is tail loaded. Having releasable – and especially released – software reduces risk. The risk is spread across the work.

Actually releasing early further reduces risk because every step in the process is exercised. There are no hidden deployment problems.

That offsets sunk-cost and combats commitment escalation. Because at any time the business stakeholders can say “game over” and walk away with a working product means that they are no longer held captive by the fear of sunk-costs, suppliers and career threatening failures.

It is also a nice side effect that releasing new functionality early – or just fixing bugs – increases the return on investment because benefits are delivered earlier and therefore start earning a return sooner.

Just because new functionality is completed and even released early does not mean users need to see it. Feature-toggles allows feature and changes to be hidden from users – or only enabled for specified users. Releasing changed software with no apparent change may look pointless but it actually reduces risk because the changes are out there.

That also means testing is simplified. Rather than running tests against software with many changes tests are run against software with few changes which makes changes more efficient even if the users don’t see it. And it removes the “we can’t roll back one fix” problem when one of 10 changes don’t pass.

Back with Vodafone engineers who don’t want their laptops updated: that was then, that was the days of CD installs. Today the cloud changes that, there is only one install to do, it isn’t such an inconvenience. So they could have the updates but with disruptive changes hidden. At the same time they could have non-disruptive changes, e.g. bug fixes.

In a few cases regular deliveries may not be the right answer. The key thing though is to change the default answer from “we only deliver occasionally (or at the end)” to “we deliver regularly (unless otherwise requested).”

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User Story or Epic?


I have two golden rules for user stories:

  1. The story should deliver business value: it should be meaningful to some customer, user, stakeholder. In some way the story should make their lives better.
  2. The story should be small enough to be delivered soon: some people say “within 2 days” but I’d generous, after all I used to be a C++ programmer, I’m happy as long as the story can be delivered within 2-weeks, i.e. the standard size of a sprint.

Now these two rules are in conflict, the need for value – and preferably more value! – pushes stories to be bigger while the second rule demands they are small. That is just the way things are, there is no magic solution, that is the tension we must manage.

Those two rules also help us differentiate between stories and epics – and tasks if you are using them:

  • Epics honour rule #1, epics are very valuable but they are not small, by definition they are large this epics are unlikely to be delivered soon
  • Tasks honour rule #2, they are small, very small, say a day of work. But they do not deliver value to stakeholders – or if they do it is not a big deal


Tasks are the things you do to build stories. And stories are the things you do to deliver epics. If you find you can complete a story without doing one of the planned tasks then great, and similarly not all stories need to be completed for an epic to be considered done.

In an ideal world you would not need tasks, every story would be small enough to stand alone. Nor would you need epics because stories would justify themselves. We can work towards that world but until then most teams of my experience use two of these three levels – stories and tasks or epics and stories. A few even use all three levels.

Using more than three is an administration problem. There is always a fourth level above these, the project or product that is the reason they exist in the first place. But really, three levels is more than enough to model just about anything: really small, small, and damn big.

And every story is a potential epic until proven guilty.

More about epics, stories and tasks in Little Book of Requirements and User Stories and in my User Stories Masterclass next month (use Blog15 for 15% discount).

September micro-workshops – spaced limited

User Stories Masterclass, Agile Estimation & Forecasting, Maximising value delivered

Early bird discounts & free tickets for unemployed/furloughed

Book with code Blog15 for 15% discount or get more details

Agile Guide podcast with Woody Zuill and Tom Cagley

I’m on a mission to popularise the term Agile Guide. A few weeks ago Wood Zuill (farther of Mob Programming and force behind #NoEstimates) and I recorded a podcast with Tom Cagley – another in his SpamCast series – on the Agile Guide role.

You can download the Agile Guide podcast from libsyn or you can download it from Apple, Sitcher, Google or Spotify.

All books bundle summer discount

Now seems the time to add Agile & OKRs to my all books bundle on LeanPub. This bundle allows you to buy all six of my LeanPub books in one go at a discount – $27 instead of $68. While the addition doesn’t apply retrospectively anyone buying the bundle from now on will get Agile OKRs in addition to the other six books.

And for the week the bundle is discounted to $19.99 using the code Summer33 on the LeanPub site.

(Unfortunately I can’t include The Art of Agile Product Ownership, Business Patterns or Changing Software Development in this bundle because the copyright is now owned by the publishers.)

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Agile: Prix fixe or a la carte?


Advert: September micro-workshops – spaced limited

User Stories Masterclass, Agile Estimation & Forecasting, Maximising value delivered

Early bird discounts & free tickets for unemployed/furloughed

Book with code Blog15 for 15% discount or get more details

“They don’t do Scrum so much as ScrumBut”

“We don’t do Scrum by the book, we changed it”

“We follow SAFe, except we’ve tailored it”

“We do a mix of agile methods”

“They call it agile but it isn’t really”

You’ve heard all these comments right? But have you noticed the tone of voice? The context in which they are said?

In my experience people say these things in a guilty way, what they mean to say is:

“They don’t do Scrum so much as Scrum but we don’t do it the way we should”

“We don’t do Scrum by the book, we changed it, we dropped the Scrum Master, we flex our sprints, …”

“We follow SAFe, except we’ve tailored it by dropping the agile coaches, the technical aspects and …”

“We do a mix of agile methods, we don’t do anything properly and its half baked”

“They call it agile but I don’t think they really understand what agile is”

Practitioners aren’t helped by advisors – coaches, trainers, consultants, what-not – who go around criticising teams for not following “Brand X Method” properly. But forget about them.

I want to rid you of your guilt. Nobody should feel guilty for not doing Scrum by the book, or SAFe the right way, or perfect Kanban.

Nobody, absolutely no person or organization I have ever met or heard of, does any method by the book.

After all “agile is a journey” and you might just be at a different point on the journey right now. To me agile is learning and there is more learning to be done – should we criticise people because the haven’t learned something?

All these methods offer a price fix menu: you pay a fixed price and you get a set menu.

In reality all agile methods should be seen as an à la carte menu: pick what you like, mix and match.

In fact, don’t just pick from the Scrum menu or the SAFe menu, pick across the menus: Scrum, XP, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS, DaD, whatever!

And do not feel guilty about it.

Do it.

My agile method, Xanpan explicitly says: mix and match. Xanpan lays out a model but it also says change things, find what works for you, steal from others.

The only thing you can get wrong in agile is doing things the same as you did 3 months ago. Keep experimenting, keep truing new ways, new ideas. If you improve then great, if not, roll-back and try something else.

In other words, keep learning.

Picture: Thanks to Andersen Jensen for the above photo on Unsplash.

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