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October 20, 2017

What's the story about those other user stories?

User stories expressing what the Product Owner or her Team want or need are bad practice. The PO delivers, never requests!


Summarising

Backlogs containing user stories that are catering for the needs and wishes of a Product Owner or Product Team are faulty. These kind of stories are unable to compete with stories that clearly add value to the business. By putting these stories on the PO's backlog compromise the ability of the PO to be successful. Instead these stories should be listed on a second backlog owned by the Team. This will improve the team's sense of autonomy, the Team's relationship with the PO.

In the past 6 months or so I've been actively working with agile teams on their backlogs. Specifically the Product Owners. As you might already know, I consider the Product Owner role as one of the most demanding and challenging roles within an agile environment. You might want to read my post on it, which you can find here. One of the major challenges I'm facing in working on backlogs is getting the Product Owner, and also the Product Team to understand why internal user stories are a bad-practice.

Internal user stories are those stories the PO wants, or the team itself. Most of the time, these are stories where an upgrade of some technology is needed, where technical debt is taken care of, or for example where the Product Owner wants some reporting from the tooling. There're any number of stories on backlogs where it is the Team or the PO in the 'I as a ...' clause of the story. Look at your own backlog and see for yourself.

You might have read my post "Perish or Survive, or being Efficient vs being Effective" on what agile encompasses in terms of motivation, or drive. When you commit to agile practices, you commit to effectiveness and in pretty much all cases you commit to a value-driven approach towards what has the highest priority.

Considering the above, than you realize that in most cases, internal user stories are not really creating value. Mind that you will have to consider the story and not the motivation for the story. Be pure in thought.
This is because of the simpel fact that the user, or customer requires and the PO (and her Team) delivers. That's all there is to it.

All of a sudden it is clear why a story like "We, the Product Team, want to upgrade to the next version of technology such and so, in order to reduce our technical debt" is a no-no on the backlog. Why? Because the user, nor the customer typically doesn't care and shouldn't care about the technology used.
Don't believe me? Well, have the user dictate the version of Ruby on Rails to be used in the development of an iPhone app and listen to what the Team has to say about this. I rest my case.
Having said that, it should also be clear that there is typically a more than valid reason why a Team wants to get rid of technical debt, even suggesting how to get rid of it as well. And in most cases it is related to the request of the user, demanding better stability, performance or security. The Team's story is an implementation aspect and nothing more.

Think about this a bit and then you're bound to see that when the PO or the Team will create their own stories and put them on the backlog, they will need to compete with the stories of the other stakeholders. Stories that add value, for the simpel reason that the stakeholders will ensure a clear value-add because that is what gets the story at the top of the backlog. (Provided the PO will actually prioritize the backlog based on business value and not things like vanity or volume of a voice.)
The last thing anyone should want is have the team's stories be relegated to the black-hole called "Tail-of-the-Backlog".

One of the most common ways of getting the things done, the Team wants done is by allowing the Team to spend some time on other things than stories. Sort of a budget expressed in time, the Team can spend on their own stories. I like to maintain the 80-20 rule here, as it can be applied in pretty much everything related to IT. So 80% of the time is spend on creating value, and 20% on something that is not necessarily adding value. How that 20% is allotted is up to the PO and her Team. Could be a day a week, could be two days during a two week sprint, or possible a full sprint once every five sprints.

I call it budget, because the PO's budget is expressed in time. She has a team available to her, a stable team paid for, for the lifespan of the Product she's owning. Consequently all she has is time to spend. Allowing the Team to work on their own stories, makes perfect sense. This is because the Team itself knows best on what stories are the most valuable. Whether it's the technology upgrade, the refactoring of old code or investigating some new concepts and their applicability.
Once the Team maintains its own backlog of its own stories, there is no need to compete with the stories of other stakeholders, the stories bound more clearly add stories. Moreover, the Team will more so be empowered to autonomously decide how stories are realized. Deciding when it is best to cut corners and when not. All of a sudden, the Team is not only responsible for the product's quality, but also accountable for the technical quality of the product.

The PO's backlog is one expressed in value creation, with the highest priority set to the story (potentially) creating the most value. Allowing the PO to be value-driven. The PO therefore can maintain a backlog consisting of user stories with clear stakeholders. People, not roles, that can be called upon to verify the product's ability to deliver value. And with the opportunity to ask these people beforehand how value is created, what metrics are needed to validate the product's benefits, etc. And of course, the story will contain the name(s) of the people to explicitly invite to the Team's demo of the product.
The Team's backlog at the same time can be prioritized on the account of what will reduce the product's costs the most. Accommodate for future developments as well as operational aspects, etc.

Maintaining both backlogs also strengthens the relationship between the PO and the Team, putting the emphasis on trust, accountability, facilitation and empowerment. The corner stones of agile teams.



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