How Leaders are Improving Agility with User Stories

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“Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly, rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.” — Bill Gates

As leaders are learning how to be more Agile and how to improve agility in their organizations, they look to User Stories.

Leaders are discovering how User Stories are a powerful way to prioritize and focus.

The power of a User Story is in its ability to help you identify and enumerate the pains, needs, and desired outcomes for your users.

Having a bird’s-eye view helps you see the forest for the trees so that you can better prioritize as well as see trends and patterns across the board.

By seeing patterns across the board, you can reduce duplicate effort and rework, as well as better coordinate existing efforts around common goals.

User Stories are really a way to re-imagine the future and chunk it up into bite sized pieces you can prioritize and tackle.

User Stories are the Backbone of Value

User Stories also help team shift from writing about requirements, to talking about them.

They are the backbone of value and help drive better conversations.  They help you answer the question, “Who is this for?” and “How will it help users?”

Without User Stories to ground conversations and prioritization, you end up with a bunch of half-baked ideas, missed opportunities, and gobs of intent locked up in requirements docs.

User Stories help everybody get in the game of value creation by creating a shared way to understand the pains, needs, and outcomes for users.

And User Stories help articulate the changes you want to see in a precise and repeatable way.

User Stories Make the Work Visible

A User Story is a useful unit, or chunk, of work.  They create a simple way to organize, prioritize, and visualize chunks of meaningful work.

If you see a long list of requirements or functionality, it’s easy to get lost in the details, and not know what the end goal really is.

On the other hand, if you see a list of User Stories, then you can get your head around the work, from a balcony view.

A big benefit of User Stories is they help make the work more visible.

In the book, More Effective Agile, Steve McConnell writes:

“Effective Agile practices emphasize making work visible—not just accessible on a web page, but a visible part of the work environment.  A story map on the wall is a constant reminder of team priorities, current assignments, and future workflow. 

Agile teams refer to this kind of display as an ‘information radiator.’  Research has found that visual displays of this kind are necessary for improved delivery performance (Forsgren, 2018).”

User Stories are the Best of Both Worlds (Agility + Discipline)

User stories are requirements with agility.  User stories really give you the best of both worlds (Agility + Discipline).

They give you the flexibility and agility of managing smaller chunks of work.  And, they give you a way to collect, organize, and prioritize work.

The real beauty is that user stories are up front design, but not Big Up Front Design (BUFD).

In the book, More Effective Agile, Steve McConnell writes:

“Story mapping is a fascinating example of how the software development pendulum has swung from pure Sequential development to early Agile, and how it has now swung back to better Agile.

Early Agile development avoided doing up-front requirements work at all costs, leaving requirements to be done just in time—and only just in time.

Story mapping, strongly associated with Agile development, is an approach for organizing and prioritizing requirements up front.  But is it not an old, Sequential, fully elaborated requirements up-front practice.

It is a practice that helps define the broad scope of a release up front and then continues to provide prioritization and guidance for incremental requirements refinement throughout the release.”

Demo Before You Build It

One of the biggest benefits that leaders get from using stories, is that they can save a lot of time and reduce wasted efforts.

I’ve seen teams waste millions building the wrong things, that nobody wanted, or not in the way that users wanted.

User stories help you work backwards from the end in mind.

User stories help you wrap a bunch of implementation detail into a simple way to express intent – in the form of an outcome – that you want to achieve.

You can actually demo the end in mind.

Whether that means walking through a simple storyboard or showing some simple visualizations, you can show what the future might look like.

A little demo goes a long way.

User Stories Help Chunk Up Value

Because user stories are rooted in the pains, needs, and desired outcomes, they are automatically rooted in value (you just need to figure out which benefits, how big, and how many).

User stories are really chunks of value.

What this means is that you can actually increase the flow of value, either by 1) choosing high-value stories, or 2) re-sequencing which stories you deliver first.

When you walk through a user story, it’s much easier to imagine the value you are creating, and who it is for.

This is especially important if you are trying to build something you want to actually sell.

Money is an exchange of value.

If you are not creating the value that somebody wants, then you won’t be successful.

If, on the other hand, you are actually solving their pains and needs, and helping them achieve their desired outcomes, then you are on the right path.

Of course, you will need to know how to answer the question, “What will users pay you for?”

Persona-Based Scenarios with Goals

An example is worth a 1000 words, but one of the things I want you to notice in the user stories below, is the wording.

The secret to wording effective user stories is to use persona-based scenarios with goals.  For example, “As an Enterprise Architect, I want to …” or “As an IT Leader, I need to ….”

Yes, this looks simple, but this phrasing is powerful.

It makes it easy to collect user stories in a fast way.  The mistake is to have a bunch of user stories that are over-generalized and over-loaded.

With user stories, the key is to be clear, simple, and straightforward.  Clever is the enemy.  It should be easy for anybody to read the user stories and easily make sense of them without having to do a bunch of mental gymnastics or parsing.

The simpler the better.

One-Sentence Stories for Capturing and Sharing User Stories

I’ve been on projects large and small.  My larger projects were multi-million dollar projects and involved distributed teams around the world.

I needed to develop a very fast, very simple way, to share catalogs and backlogs of user stories.

My favorite approach has always been to user One-Sentence Stories:

As a < type of user or persona >, I want < some goal  or intent> so that < some reason or benefit >.

I find that it’s very easy to manage an index or catalog of One-Sentence Stories.  It’s the Master part of the Master/Detail.

It makes it possible to do rapid reviews around an early index of One-Sentence Stories.

The details will come as we get closer to implementation, or as we walkthrough and talk through demos or storyboards.

Really, this approach to One-Sentence Stories also makes it possible to incrementally render understanding what good will look like.

Users don’t always know, but you can start somewhere, by capturing what they want or need or are trying to accomplish.  Then you can figure out the reason or intent, and this will shape the story further.  Then, when you demo or walk through a storyboard, you will gain an incredible amount of clarity, because you are making the story specific.

You can ask and answer the tough questions.

Example of One-Sentence Stories (A Map of User Stories to Prioritize)

Here is an example of a catalog of user stories.  I created it by polling CEOs, CIOs, and CTOs, as well as several Enterprise Architects.

I asked them a simple question, “What do you want to know about adopting the Cloud or Digital Transformation?”

Here is what they shared with me …

Awareness / Education

  • As a Business Leader, I want leading technology companies to define their perspective on Cloud Computing and provide a holistic view of how their products, technologies and services help me
  • As an Enterprise Architect I want to know how the cloud architecture supports my business goals and enterprise architecture
  • As an IT Leader I want details on training and educating my staff in the use and support for the service

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  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand why I wouldn’t go to a proven partner that has a history of doing this for my competition, one that is already providing a similar service as part of our outsourcing agreement
  • As an Enterprise Architect I want to understand how the cloud architecture reduces complexity
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to see what my peers are doing, to learn and support each other
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want actionable guidance for prioritization of ground apps to cloud apps. How do I work out the balance for what should go into the cloud?
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want education on the content myself so that I am well versed in the specific items that apply to my customer
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know the good, bad, and ugly so that I am not misrepresenting this to the customer based on marketing material
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand why I would even consider moving to the cloud. What we have works, why change?
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to understand the perceptions of customers and assumptions they will have that lead to preconceived ideas – and how do I ‘unlearn’ them to get to a better discussion
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to understand the right sequence of steps to educate a customer on cloud
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know where the complexity is in the cloud. Every new paradigm claims to be simpler but still has to deal with the same operational baggage – where is the complexity in cloud solutions?
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know why I wouldn’t just go to a traditional outsourcer
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand how I manage corporate data that may span multiple cloud scenarios
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand why I would introduce yet another environment into my services and the associated complexity

Architecture

  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to see reference architecture for compelling cloud scenarios that will help me build a desired end-state for my specific customer scenario
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to see case studies of both success and failure
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to learn about proven Reference Architecture patterns for the cloud.

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  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand industry reference models for cloud concepts and terms.
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want data movement and management patterns and best practices
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to identify Cloud System Integration Patterns (Cloud-To-Ground, VendorCloud-To-Ground, OurCloud-ToVendorCloud, VendorCloud-to-VendorCloud-to-Ground, etc)

Availability

  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand geographical redundancy
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to handle disaster recovery in the cloud
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand the same details I would expect from my own data center (fault tolerance, back up procedures, disaster recovery etc.)

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  • As a Business Leader, I want to know what happens when the next country decides to block Internet access
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to learn how to evaluate cloud services for availability across all regions I need to cover. (What is the performance? What about support in a global environment?)

Competition

  • As a Business Leader, I want to know how the cloud offerings of leading technology companies compare to the competition
  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how cloud offerings can give me a leg up on my competition
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to know what competitors are saying and how it should be addressed

Cost

  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand the cost structure for cloud solutions
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to create a realistic cost model based on the current workload
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know if I need to migrate or rewrite my apps and what are the costs associated with this

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  • As a Business Leader, how do I manage the transition period in which I probably have to pay twice?
  • As a Business Leader, I want a consistent cost of service so that I can manage against my budget
  • As a Business Leader, I want to know how to manage cloud service subscriptions across a large enterprise to optimize subscription costs
  • As a Business Leader, I want to know that I am not going to incur a large spike in my costs as part of the migration to the cloud
  • As a Business Leader, I want to know what geographic redundancy does to my bandwidth usage and costs
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to assist with the customer presentations and planning discussions
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to identify areas in IT where cost reductions can be had with relatively low risk
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want the costs to be known and predictable so that I can budget accordingly
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to learn how to manage cloud service subscriptions across a large enterprise to optimize subscription costs
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand how to build the cost model for the customer
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want understand the taxation impact on Cloud based Transactions (state, Federal, inter-nation)
  • As an IT Leader, I want a clear cost breakdown contrasted against my current costs or if I used my existing environment
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand how I can implement chargeback within my IT environment to provide more transparency on costs
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand the cost structure for the cloud solutions

Governance and Regulation

  • As a Business Leader, I want to know how to manage government regulations related to where certain info can be stored. (For large enterprise that have subsidiaries in several countries. A single cloud service may not be able to comply with each countries various regulation needs)
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to address all regulations and restrictions that may be realized for my customers in all areas they do business
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to ensure I am meeting regulatory requirements

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  • As a Business Leader, I want to know how to adhere to the various government regulations related to pricing and information storage
  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand the environmental impact of moving to the cloud. How will this impact my green initiatives?
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to learn how to adhere to the various government regulations related to pricing and information storage.
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to learn how to manage government regulations related to where certain information can be stored.
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand the jurisdiction issues with the cloud and how to mitigate them for my region(s)

Industry

  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to identify the relevant cloud industry trends for the business.

Integration

  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how I integrate with my existing systems
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand how to integrate cloud solutions with my existing processes
  • As an IT Leader, do I need to move all my integrated apps to the cloud or can I do this progressively? What does this mean when apps are integrated (data, web services…)?

Operations

  • As an IT Leader, I want to know how many environments do I need and what are the implications and costs (dev/test/pre-prod/prod)
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know how to integrate cloud reporting into my existing reporting infrastructure
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand release management requirements to ensure they fit with our current procedures or do not create undue overhead

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  • As an IT Leader, I want to know what the reporting capabilities of the service are. This provides visibility to the business on how the services are performing.
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand a holistic view on management that spans all cloud scenarios
  • As an IT leader, I want to understand how I model the health of applications that may span private and public clouds or fully deployed in public cloud to ensure I can have better control on service levels.
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand how I model the health of applications that may span private and public clouds or fully deployed in public cloud to ensure I can have better control on service levels
  • As an IT Leader, what is the flexibility of an organization to decide of when upgrades are appropriate based on their priorities and rhythms and how can I test my environment before upgrading the production environment?

People

  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how my workforce must evolve to embrace the cloud
  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how the cloud impacts my user base globally
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know what this means to IT teams (Do I need to get rid of people or re-purpose the teams — which means here up leveling, training)

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  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how various cloud scenarios impact my workforce levels
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want guidance for measuring the impact of moving a system to the cloud (business and IT)

Performance

  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how my service level management processes need to cater to online service re-delivery
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know what are the availability, reliability, and scalability of the cloud (What do the SLAs mean? Do they still hold the same commitments?)
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know that I can make quick patches to address immediate quality of service issues

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  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want the cloud to provide elasticity for my business as it expands and contracts to address seasonal load
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know how to more effectively manage capacity requirements to avoid underutilized infrastructure and leverage online service more effectively
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand the level of service I can expect for all of my user base

Planning

  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand how I test the solution before deployment
  • As a Customer, I want to know how to work out the balance for what should go into the cloud – I accept it’s not 0% and not 100% – but how do I find the right balance?
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to develop some guiding architectural principles to help me build strategy and roadmap around Cloud Computing

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  • As a Business Leader, I want to determine the effort needed to migrate our existing solution. Is this a lift and shift? Is this a rewrite, do we extend?
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to determine the items in the cloud offerings that are relevant to my customer
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want my application portfolio management to inject cloud relevant criteria to decide what moves to the cloud and when (if it all)
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to ensure we are not impacting the ability to realize change
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how I can reduce my IT infrastructure burden by bursting capabilities into the cloud when I can’t outsource the whole service to the cloud
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know what maturity levels for what capabilities I need to ensure to better enable leveraging cloud scenarios
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand how I can treat my physical infrastructure assets as more of a fabric and abstract the complexities of OEM devices

Risk

  • As a Business Leader, I want to know how I can retrieve my IP/Data should I decide to move provider (service lock-in)
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand the areas of risk that I am accepting by trusting an external data center and service
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know the blockers that lead to implementation failure

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  • As a Business Leader, how comfortable is a European company to host in a datacenter that is in the US?
  • As a Business Leader, I want to know what happens if the service is not reliable. What are my options? Can I easily find another solution and get out of the contract?
  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand the risks of depending on a single partner to run my business
  • As a Business Leader, I want to understand what is involved if we decide to return to our existing service
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to be able to test with low risk opportunities if we decide to proceed
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to avoid vendor lock in
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand how to identify low risk opportunities for the cloud
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know the blockers for adoption that cause decision paralysis
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know where the complexity is in cloud based solutions

Security

  • As an Enterprise Architect I want to understand what new security risks exist in the cloud and what old risks have been mitigated
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how I manage identity across cloud scenarios considering I’ve already invested heavily in my internal IT
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to manage privacy and integrity of the data if it’s hosted in the cloud. (How do I restrict access to the data by the hoster, and what do I do about a local copy of the data that is synchronized regularly?)

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  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to manage accessing cloud services from within the various heterogeneous internal networks
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand a holistic view on security that spans all cloud scenarios
  • As an Enterprise Architect, my company has invested in a common directory (AD/SSO). How does this work in the cloud?

Service Levels / Quality of Service

  • As a Business Leader I want to understand who is liable in the event of a service failure
  • As a Business Leader I want to understand who is liable in the event of a security breach
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand what level of technical support is available to myself and my team

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  • As an Business Leader, I want to know if I’ll have to change my SLA with customers
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how the cloud infrastructure is supported

Solutions

  • As a Business Leader, I want to try before I buy and have access to a proof of concept
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want access to experts that can do analysis on creating solutions to determine the issues, risks, and costs for migration
  • As an IT Leader, I want to understand the balance for what should go in the cloud; I accept it’s not 0% and not 100%, how do I find the right balance

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  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want a way to assist with the proof of concept
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to know how I can backup our Ground based HPC with the Cloud for on demand scale
  • As an IT Leader, I want my IT strategy to reflect Cloud computing, on-premises and off-premises capabilities

Sourcing

  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to do partnership management in the cloud. (Managing a partner is hard and when this comes down to the fact that the service can be unavailable it is even more important to do a good job)
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to evaluate whether the application or system is considered core to my business and could be sourced to a partner in the cloud (Can the system or application be hosted outside of the intranet?)
  • As an Enterprise Strategy Architect, I want to know how to use the Cloud for our DR plan. (i.e. fail from Ground to Cloud)

Strategy

  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to understand the strategy for cloud

Support

  • As a business leader, I want to know how we integrate with our existing help desk for escalation
  • As a Business Leader, I want to know if there is a reliable support structure (24×7)
  • As an IT Leader, I want to know what happens if something goes wrong; how fast will I be notified of an issue, how long will it take to be addressed, what priority will I be given contrasted against the other consumers of the service?

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  • As a Business Leader, I want to know what the support implications are in a global environment
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know how to evaluate or enforce a 24×7 support model with the cloud
  • As an Enterprise Architect, I want to know who I call if I am experiencing an issue with the hosted solution

Use Scenarios to Capture and Share Bigger Business Stories

While the user stories are great for chunking up bigger work into smaller units of change, you still need a way to capture, organize, and prioritize bigger chunks of value.

The One-Sentence Stories are not enough. They really serve more as an index or simple list of the stories.

This is where Scenarios are helpful.

A Scenario is effectively a story of the pains, needs, and desired outcomes.  A Scenario helps create empathy and share what good looks like, without getting lost in implementation details.

You can use Scenarios as a way to chunk up bigger changes, whether it’s to drive an organizational change or ship a new product or re-imagine your user experience.

Leaders that use Scenarios find it much easier to share bigger chunks of change, and operate at the right level of granularity.

Example of a Scenario

Here is an example of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), who wants to change their customer experience game for the future:

Current State

We are not able to deliver the engaging and compelling experiences our customers expect, wherever they are.   Our customers have fragmented and inconsistent experiences when shopping across channels.  We have not been able to tap the potential of harnessing customer data to provide personalized experiences and intelligent recommendations.

Desired Future State 

We provide a seamless and smooth customer journey that enables customers to switch platforms, devices, and channels, while still having a coherent experience.  We have a 360 degree view of each customer based on the data that we collect from all customer touch points, including social, online, mobile and physical stores.  We provide personalized assistance from sales reps anywhere, anytime.  We provide dynamic and rich content to customers, including augmented and mixed reality experiences.

As you can see, this one Scenario will unpack into a bunch of sub-stories.  And, as you can imagine, this CMO now has a very crisp way to walk through the halls and share their vision for where the company needs to go to modernize their customer experience.

This one scenario sets the stage to help prioritize investments and sequence the work in a value-driven way.

Hack Your Business Agility with User Stories and Scenarios

You can radically improve your business agility by embracing User Stories and Scenarios as the backbone for how you design, drive,and deliver work.

Here are the key points:

  1. Use User Stories to divide and conquer your future.  Use User Stories as a way to chunk bigger work down into units of work that you can manage.
  2. Capture and share User Stories in a backlog (the list of work to be done)
  3. Prioritize User Stories by evaluating against “impact” and “ability to execute” (executing a bunch of low impact work often gets in the way of doing the high impact work, and, at the same time, you don’t want to invest in a bunch of work where you have low or no ability to execute.)  If you want to flow more value, you can either choose better User Stories, or you can re-sequence the User Stories you deliver.
  4. Demo User Stories before you build them.  It’s a fast way to check if it’s worth it, before riding off in the wrong direction. Keep this lightweight and simple.  You can go from low-fidelity to high-fidelity visualizations.  For example, you might first just whiteboard the journey of the user experience.  You might then mock up some slides.  You might turn that into a video.  Keep it pragmatic and practical around helping people see and understand the value, so they can prioritize more effectively, so they build more things that are worth it.
  5. User Stories are the gateway to user adoption.  A User Story that is truly rooted in a user’s pains, needs, and desired outcome, sets the stage for their future behavior.  Adoption is really about “behavior change.”  A User Story is a helpful lens to help you better understand the specific behavior changes required in order to adopt your product, or service, or whatever.

Hack away, the Agile Way!

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