Ruins of Willkarakay

Telling stories is a natural human activity from time immemorial.  Creating a succinct and informative story to describe a business need or the future of an organization is challenging.  Stories are not bulleted presentation slides, although those tools can be used.  Rather stories at this level are longer narratives, or at the very least they are like the paintings in Lascaux Caves which evoke a longer narrative. Narrative storytelling is not a tool typically found or appreciated in status meetings, the process of building a narrative that describes a business need or the journey an organization must take to achieve a goal often needs facilitation.  Three facilitation tools are commonly used to help a team or an individual to build a story in a business environment. They are: (more…)

What you see is dependent on what you expect.

What you see depends on what you expect.

Cognitive biases are a pattern of behavior that reflects a deviation in judgment that occurs under particular situations. Biases develop as filters or shortcuts that help us perceive information quickly in a manner that turns out to be beneficial to a decision-making process. Biases that help us recognize patterns helped early humans stay alive by recognizing predators. The shortcut kept our ancestors alive even if there were false positives (you can survive lots of false positives, but you aren’t likely to survive a false negative). Project teams (Agile or not) use or fall prey to a wide range of biases that affect perceptions and decisions. A sample of common biases that affect project teams in this category include:

Anchor bias refers to the tendency to rely heavily on one piece of information when making decisions. This bias is often seen when early estimates for a project or a tasks are made. The instant they are placed on the table they become a reference point to which all changes will be compared.

Clustering illusion (or clustering bias) is the tendency to see patterns in clusters or streaks of in a smaller sample of data inside larger data sets. For example, a team I recently worked with had an average velocity of 30 story points per sprint (ranged between 20 – 36) had three sprints in a row that delivered 40+ story points. While nothing significant had changed with how the team was working, outsiders saw a pattern and believed something out of the ordinary was occurring. (FYI – if there is no statistical significance to the data what we are seeing is “common cause” variance.)

The curse of knowledge bias generates a filter that blocks the ability think about a topic from a different and generally less informed perspective. In many cases being an expert on a topic makes it very difficult to see an out-of-the-box solution. This is one of the reasons significant changes in IT platforms or concepts come as new players enter the organization that have less experience with current tools and techniques. In a similar manner to the curse of knowledge, the status quo bias or the tendency to want things to stay relatively the same, creates a perception filter that helps the individual or team seek out and fixate data and concepts which makes them comfortable so they do not need to change.

An availability cascade causes a concept to become more and more plausible the more it is repeated publicly.  An availability cascade generates a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Perhaps that is why Pokemon became more popular the more it was shown on the Cartoon Network. Daniel Pink, author of To Sell Is Human, in a Salesforce.Com webinar on July 9th pointed out that repetition increases process fluency, which makes the repeated item seem to be more true through repetition. Sales, marketing and 24 hour news channels understand and use the availability cascade bias to great effect.

A final example of biases that affect behavior and perception is optimism bias. Optimism bias is the tendency to be overoptimistic about favorable outcomes. This bias is often exhibited in status reports or in promises made early in a project. These are generally not lies, but rather due to optimism bias we believe that we can deliver. Dr. Ricardo Validri in Software Process and Measurement Cast 84 suggests that optimism bias is one of major reasons IT personnel are poor estimators.

This is a sample of cognitive biases that affect how we perceive information and then how we make decisions. Each of the biases reflects some basic component of human psychology and has been found to be generally beneficial. However all biases can create blind spots. A good coach or leader will first be aware of his or her biases and then help the team understand their blind spots while not abandoning the shortcuts that can help us perceive what is important and make timely decisions.

Capturing requirements is different than catching fish.

Capturing requirements is different than catching fish.

Where do you get the requirements that make up your backlog? There are two classic macro strategies that project teams follow to gather requirements and create a backlog.  Where a backlog of requirements comes from and who was involved in the process has implications that can influence the whole life cycle of a project by setting expectations and identifying behavioral norms for the entire project.

The first macro category represents scenarios in which requirements are provided to the project team either fully or partially formed. This is very common for projects that are outsourced or in organizations where a significant barrier has been erected between corporate IT and the business.  The business decides what it wants and then negotiates to obtain what they are asking for.  In order for this scenario to work effectively, business departments hire business analysts (BA), create shadow IT teams or leverage super users to act as liaisons to IT.  The BAs, or proxy BAs, gather and document the businesses requirements, and then during the project execution, they interpret those requirements.  This type of behavior reinforces a barrier between the business and the team doing the work.

One of major problems this arm’s length process of gathering of requirements generates is an anchor bias in which the business’ expectations get set before they know what is possible.  The backlog becomes the baseline against which project success will be measured. Change and evolution become more difficult because changes would be perceived as renegotiating success.  Applying the Agile principal of embracing change and working with the business on a continual bias become significantly more difficult when the business has become anchored to the picture the initial requirements generates.  This anchor becomes even stickier when those requirements are codified in a contract or as success criteria in a charter (a weak form of a contract).

Another behavior that falls into this category is that the BA becomes a proxy for the product owner.  Proxy product owners don’t have the decision making power to change or evolve the backlog, so they tend to defend the status quo.  A better solution is to incorporate the BA into the project team with a true product owner.

In the second macro category the whole team, or at least a cross-functional portion of the team, gathers the requirements.  In an Agile project, the requirements are used to generate an initial backlog. Incorporating the requirements into backlog is an explicit recognition that the project will allow the requirements to evolve.  Involvement of a cross-functional team will produce better requirements earlier, while incorporating Agile principles and backlog concepts help parties stay less anchored to the initial requirements given the flexibility inherent unthreatening techniques. Removing or diluting the initial anchor makes it easier for the product owner to identify and incorporate the concept of a minimum viable product into release planning.  Without the anchor the project will not be perceived as all or nothing because the backlog can be re-prioritized or changed if needed.

The cross functional approach to developing requirements that includes business, BA, development and testing capabilities build bridges between IT and the business.  These bridges make it less likely that the BA will have play the role of proxy product owner, because business personnel have more exposure to the project environment, making it less foreign and frightening.

How the initial set of requirements defined and who participated in the process can have a huge impact on the trajectory of a project.  Whether organizations perceive IT as a partner or as a vendor will influence which requirements strategy will be most attractive, as will how dynamic the organization perceives the business environment. Partnership and dynamic environments tend more towards scenario two.  In the long run, all projects have to have a set of requirements. How we organize them will affect the how, who and when of gathering requirements.