Break the rules at your own peril.

Break the rules at your own peril.

I am not really a big rule guy, I would rather think of most structures as a guideline. However, sometimes there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  There are three rules that everyone involved in backlog refinement must remember.  These rules are broken at your peril!

  1. Rule One (originally described in Splitting User Stories: Patterns): Each story must deliver functionality that is potentially implementable. If a story needs to be split or refined, think slice rather than phase or layer. Each story should represent a thin slice of on an onion starting at the outer layer cutting to the core rather than an individual layer.
  2. Rule Two: All formal refinement sessions need to have a clear measurable goal. A goal provides focus for the refinement exercise and provides bounds in much the same manner as an agenda does in a standard meeting. Participants should know the goal for the session (e.g. today we focus on stories supporting the theme for the next sprint) when the session is scheduled so that they can prepare. For example, when I participate in refinement sessions, I try to review the stories that will be discussed so I am not participating to generate questions, but rather participating to generate understanding.
  3. Rule Three: While most Agile exercises include the whole team, participation in a refinement session should be limited. I use the Three Amigos technique to ensure a crosssection that includes a tester, product owner or business analyst and developer. refinement sessions are working sessions focused on making sure stories are understood, properly formed and have initial acceptance criteria. The larger the number of people involved in a meeting, the larger the amount of time that will be spent developing a consensus that will be revisited during sprint planning.

When scheduling a refinement session remember the three rules.  First and foremost, all stories need to deliver value. If a story does not deliver value, consider jettisoning the story. If you are going to schedule a session make sure you have a goal.  Just like the relationship between a meeting and an agenda (no agenda, no meeting), if you don’t have a goal for your session generate a one or reschedule the session. Finally, inviting everyone involved in the project (and a few extra subject matter experts for good measure) is a recipe for death by talking.  Constrain the session to the absolute minimum number of participants. User story refinement is important, don’t mess it up!  If you have to break the rules  . . . well just don’t.

Imagine: A sign with ALL the rules for the beach. A list just seems to go on and on.

The larger the number of rules, the lower the likelihood that any one will be able to knowingly follow all the rules. So, if the rules are really important, then enforcement (and the overhead required to support enforcement) is required. The enforcement requirements are the tax that reduce the overall amount of value that can be delivered if, as in most organizations, budgets are not unlimited. In a zero sum game, every additional check or level of oversight must be funded from somewhere.

Techniques like Agile espouse simpler processes and simpler enforcement mechanisms. One of the lessons we can learn from Agile is that focusing on the rules that really matter allows us to simplify the enforcement mechanisms. Less enforcement of arbitrary rules leaves us with more time to deliver value.

Now, what exactly is a swim diaper?

FYI: I am posting from China, if the photos are off or the timing is wonky I will correct when I get back.


4-1 2013 No Space Alien Crossing

For whatever reason Oberlin, Ohio is obsessed with making sure that there are no space aliens using the public facilities, like the cross walk. Humorous but a negative policy. Methods and policies can easily fall into the trap of defining what shouldn’t or can’t be done, rather than what should be done. While it may be impossible to prove a negative, it is very easy to state a negative.  A negative focus makes it difficult to establish a climate of trust. Negative policies reinforce work place negativity which sap productivity. I am not espousing an environment without rules or a postindustrial-hippie commune, but rather an environment where rules define the positive.

Defining what we don’t want to happen can be a never ending exercise that will need to be tweaked every time a new mistake is made.  Adding tests and reviews to eliminate each new problem ends up creating processes that are as effective as plaque-filled arteries. If we continually need to look for space aliens in our crosswalks that time to come from value producing activities. Defining the goal and the policies to support business needs promotes better process health.  Banning space aliens from the crosswalk may well be addressing an issue that will never happen, and while a fun thought, it wastes resources that might be better spent elsewhere.

Trash In The Toilet


There is a natural tendency to bridle at rules that we did not help craft. Not all rules are unwarranted. A quick test is that if you would not want to clean up the mess then breaking the rule is a bad idea. If breaking a rule will cause a messy problem then MAYBE there is a good reason for the rule. If you still want to break the rules grab a plunger because if you clogged it, it is your responsibility and you own the problem!


Food Fun

Food Fun

Change many times means breaking the rules.  My mother always told me not to play with my food however to get the job done sometimes the rules just get in the way.   This was one of the times she was wrong (running with scissors and running down stairs are still rules I am loath to test).  When implementing change understand the prevailing rules and understand how you will interact with those rules.  When needed pick your shot and play with your food!