Clear Agile Speak During a Muddy Easter

By Brian Lucas

This one is for all the children who did not have an Easter to remember!

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all…” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Jane, an IT friend of mine, who was in town, joined me for the festivities during the Easter meal at relatives and friends yesterday. We dined throughout the long day on a marvelously succulent wild boar with sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, homemade raisin walnut bread, peas in white gravy and candied carrots. It was accompanied by some very nice homemade apple cider and a seemingly endless assortment of pies, cakes and an unfortunate mountain of various sweets. For entertainment, we watched invading hordes of children track an impressive amount of mud throughout the house from what was by all accounts an epicly successful egg hunt. At one point, she turned to me and said the user stories her company was producing were sometimes as muddy as the children’s footprints.

She then took the opportunity to bemoan their failure in adopting what I call “agile speak” and asked me if I had any suggestions that would help. I told her that the latest trend I have seen in very successful agile development operations was to “externalize” their user stories to segments of their existing and/or potential customer base. It is essentially an aspect of crowdsourcing your requirements. This has two benefits. First, it ensures you are using language that your customers can understand. Second, it gives you a verification of the validity of what you are trying to develop before you do so.

What impressed me about Jane’s reaction is she did not express a fear of sharing what amounts to a specification with the public that might fall into a competitor’s hands. Instead, she focused right on the logistics of how this could be accomplished. She felt that even a carefully selected customer set would have trouble understanding the user stories. I agreed, but there were ways to make them more palatable. Here is a summary of what I suggested:

  1. Carefully select the customers you want to invite to participate.
  2. Share these in a social media site where this group can view, comment on and share their reactions in an open collaborative way with other respondents.
  3. Unveil the user stories as supplements to a wireframing example of the flow of the solution, where the user storied are viewed as callouts on each window.
  4. Have the site monitored 24/7 and aggressively respond to user comments, requests and suggestions. Show in an immediate of a way as possible, you value each customer’s participation.
  5. Pay the most amount of attention to adopting terms that appear to have universal recognition amongst the customers providing that they do not loose any required specificity or meaning.

I asked her why she was not afraid of exposing this level of information. Her response was gratifyingly typical of what I see is the emerging psychology of the more successful organizations. Success is not gained by maintaining secrets, but rather by being open and having a superior execution capability. I remember years ago a manager once telling me they would never put information about their company on the internet because it just gave their competition access to free information. Today, you can find even your local pizza shop on the internet of course!

I warned Jane, she could expect some serious bumps in the road here, but that was the nature of the effort and the rewards far outweighed any of the pains this process would cause or exacerbate. One of the many benefits is it has a tendency to remove arguments about language from inside the team. With the users directly commenting on how well the function or feature is expressed and how much they value the capability, arguments and differing internal opinions can diminish drastically.

So why not take a bold, new step in beginning to crowd source your requirements from your customer base. If you adapt your process as you learn more, it is sure to be a clear success!

About Brian Lucas

In his life, Brian Lucas has been a coach, farm worker, forester, health care advocate, life guard, general contractor, mechanic, mixologist, musician/singer (in a rock group), salesman and teacher. Brian has worked as a project manager, technical marketer, methodologist, manager, software architect, systems designer, data modeler, business analyst, systems programmer, software developer and creative writer. These efforts include over a hundred hi-tech initiatives in almost every business and industrial sector as well as government and military projects. Among them, he designed and developed a quality assurance system for the first transatlantic fiber optic communications network, a manufacturing system for a large computer manufacture’s seven manufacturing centers, a data mining system for steel production, an instrumentation system for cable systems, defined requirements for government’s information systems and designed and developed human performance management systems. Brian has educated and mentored many over the years, designing programs to discover and develop talent. He has also lectured extensively to a variety of audiences. Brian is currently devoting as much time as possible to the innovation of business agility and human capital management along with the next generation of agile software development. As an amateur theoretical physicist he is working on joining general relativity and quantum mechanics through a multidimensional time corollary on string theory and negating the uncertainty principle with Louis de Broglie’s wave/particle hypothesis. He is also an avid blue-water sailor and wilderness backpacker. He enjoys billiards, boxing, chess, cooking, famous battle reenactments and war gaming, fencing, flying, gardening, horseback riding, martial arts (particularly Ninjutsu), philosophy and psychology, playing musical instruments (7 so far), poker, rapid-fire target shooting, reading (he tries to read a new book every night), painting with oils, scuba diving, skiing and recently writing novels.
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7 Responses to Clear Agile Speak During a Muddy Easter

  1. Sienna Yaney says:

    Cute post Brian! Were any of those kids yours? I love how you give these ‘in the moment’ pieces of advice and they are all great! So can I call you at 3 AM and ask questions? Just kidding! I really luv your blog and the advice and suggestions that you give on all sorts of things. I know you don’t use Facebook and that’s a shame. I am sure a lot of us would want to connect with you that way. You are a rare person and I would enjoy meeting you!

  2. Craig Fisher says:

    Hi Brian, this seems a pretty bold step! Do you have any more parameters around how you would set this up? It seems to me like a great idea if it works, but a dangerous one. Is Jane willing to share how she is making out with externalizing her user stories?

  3. Daphne Frieze says:

    Nice OWH quote Brian! Clear and concise wording are definite keys to good user stories! I agree with your advice though I am not sure I would ever be in a position to implement it.

  4. Freda-Gld says:

    I don’t know if I would externalize the user stories, but I would definitely mine a social media chat room for product ideas. Interesting idea though…

  5. Glenda Palmer says:

    Daphne shared this with me and I love it Brian! I am definitely going to follow your blog! One question? How did you manage to have a serious conversation with a bunch of kids running around? If they make the same racket my 2 and 4 year old boys do, it must have been a challenge! 🙂

  6. JaneG says:

    I just wanted to let all the readers here know I implemented this and in several news groups we set up especially for this purpose. The volume of response has been fairly low, but far more positive than we expected. We found a few users who were very articulate and helped improve our stories considerably. There was only a few negatives and these were off topic and we did not approve them. We decided to monitor all comments and interactions and subject them to an approval process. We process every comment within 2 hours (24/7). I am not sure we will do this all the time, but it is certainly helping us improve our language and grow closer to our customer base. Many thanks Brian again for the great suggestion!

  7. Sally Eldridge says:

    Hi Brian, your blog has the most interesting articles. I love how you can tell a story and make it interesting and educational. Please let me know when your next webinar is, I definitely want to attend!

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