Center Point: The Product Backlog

If a rock wall is what is needed, but the only material available is a large boulder, how can you go about transforming the latter into the former?

Short answer: Work.

Longer answer: Lots of work.

Whether the task is to break apart a physical boulder into pieces suitable for building a wall or breaking up an idea into actionable tasks, there is a lot of work involved. Especially if a team is inexperienced or lacks the skilled needed to successfully complete such a process.

Large ideas are difficult to work with. They are difficult to translate into action until they are broken down into more manageable pieces. That is, descriptions of work that can be organized into manageable work streams.

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.President John Kennedy

That’s a pretty big boulder. In fact, it’s so big it served quite well as a “product vision” for the effort that eventually got men safely to and from the moon in 1969. Even so, Kennedy’s speech called out the effort that it would take to realize the vision. Hard work. Exceptional energy and skill. What followed in the years after Kennedy’s speech in 1962 was a whole lot of boulder-busting activity

A user story is a brief, simple statement from the perspective of the product’s end user. It’s an invitation for a conversation about the what’s needed so that the story can meet all the user’s expectations.

In it’s simplest form, this is all a product backlog is. A collection of doable user stories derived from a larger vision for the product and ordered in a way that allows for a realistic path to completion to be defined. While this is simple, creating and maintaining such a thing is difficult.

Experience has taught me that the single biggest impediment to improving a team’s performance is the lack of a well-defined and maintained product backlog. Sprint velocities remain volatile if design changes or priorities are continually clobbering sprint scope. Team morale suffers if they don’t know what they’re going to be working on sprint-to-sprint or, even worse, if the work they have completed will have to be reworked or thrown out. The list of negative ripple effects from a poor quality product backlog is a long one.

Boulder image by pen_ash from Pixabay

What’s in YOUR manual?

You go to see a movie with a friend. You sit side-by-side and watch the same movie projected on the screen. Afterward, in discussing the movie, you both disagree on the motives of the lead character and even quibble over the sequence of events in the movie you just watched together.

How is it that two people having just watched the same movie could come to different conclusions and even disagree over the sequence of events that – objectively speaking – could have only happened in one way?

It’s what brains do. Memory is imperfect and every one of us has a unique set of filters and lenses through which we view the world. At best, we have a mostly useful but distorted model of the world around us. Not everyone understands this. Perhaps most people don’t understand this. It’s far more common for people – especially smart people – to believe and behave as if their model of the world is 1) accurate and 2) shared with everybody else on the planet.

Which gets me to the notion of the user manuals we all carry around in our heads about OTHER people.

Imagine a tall stack of books, some thin others very thick. On the spine of each book is the name of someone you know. The book with your partner’s name on it is particularly thick. The book with the name of your favorite barista on the spine is quite a bit thinner. Each of these books represents a manual that you have written on how the other person is supposed to behave. Your partner, for example, should know what they’re supposed to be doing to seamlessly match your model of the world. And when they don’t follow the manual, there can be hell to pay.

Same for your coworkers, other family members, even acquaintances. The manual is right there in plain sight in your head. How could they not know that they’re supposed to return your phone call within 30 minutes? It’s right there in the manual!

It seems cartoonish. But play with this point of view for a few days. Notice how many things – both positive and negative – you project onto others that are based on your version of how they should be behaving. What expectations do you have, based on the manual you wrote, for how they’re supposed to behave?

Now ask yourself, in that big stack of manuals you’ve authored for how others’ brains should work, where is your manual? If you want to improve all your relationships, toss out all of those manuals and keep only one. The one with your name on the spine. Now focus on improving that one manual.

What does Agile documentation look like?

Reading through Dusty Phillips’ second edition of “Python 3 Object-oriented Programming,” this quote caught my attention:

Further, the most important person you will ever have to communicate with is yourself. We all think we can remember the design decisions we’ve made, but there will always be the Why did I do that? moments hiding in our future. If we keep the scraps of papers we did our initial diagramming on when we started a design, we’ll eventually find them a useful reference.

That strikes me as a good benchmark for acceptable documentation in Agile. Whether coder, UI/UX designer, data architect, or whatever, if you are keeping a good record of what you decided and why, you’ll probably be able to recreate the rationale for why things got to be the way they are for anybody who needs to know. Especially if that anybody is you. And there is a good chance that someone following in your footsteps will be able to pick up the same rationale even in your absence. All this without putting an unnecessary burden on project progress for the sake of detailed documentation.

Of course, what qualifies as “good” is the tricky part. A suggested threshold would be to specify only as much information as makes sense or for what is known given the current situation. Documentation should be subject to iterative practices just as much as code.