Why Business Analysts should write User Stories for Agile teams

I have seen so many Agile teams struggle with requirements. They do not want big documents, they think they do not need a Business Analyst. In fact, they think they will just grab the Project Sponsor and have that person sit with the team to tell them what to do.

This has not been working out so well. Except in a small number of situations, it is not going to work out very well. The reasons have to do with the environment where Agile is designed to work. If your teams are not working in the right kind of environment, then the Agile team has to adapt how they work.

Let’s look at what that environment is supposed to be, where it breaks down, and what you as a Business Analyst can do to make it work better.

How Agile is Designed to Work
===========================

If you look closely at the Agile Manifesto, Extreme Programming, and Scrum they all are based on a particular work environment. If you can set up that specific work environment, then the practices work fairly well for the programmers. There are still some missing pieces and
possible problem areas for the business, which I will discuss at another time, but the development team is very effective.

What does that work environment look like? It is really pretty simple. You have:

* a team of 10 or fewer development professionals
* the team can do all the work; specifically they do not need to get a database person, security person, tester, or ops person, they do all the work themselves
* the team is seated together in the same physical location typically with lots of white boards available
* the team works the same days and hours
* the customer (Project Sponsor) sits full-time with the team
* the same team is typically kept together over a period of years

In this environment, user stories are written by the Project Sponsor. These user stories are placeholders for conversations that will occur between the development team and the Project Sponsor. They are not themselves requirements.

When the time comes to implement a user story, the team and Sponsor talk about the user story and how they will know it is complete. They will write up scenarios that describe what will happen. The developers estimate how much effort it will take to code the user story and decide if it will fit in the next iteration. If not, the user story will be split into smaller pieces. If it does fit and there is room for more work, the team repeats the process with the next user story.

Now the day comes to actually work on the user story. The team will get more details from the sponsor. They may white board a flow chart of the process, do some quick sketches of screen mockups, or make a list of business rules that need to be implemented. As the team works on writing the code they may go back to the whiteboard to discuss design issues or flow chart the flow through the code. Finally the code is complete, they test it, and release it.

….

It is easy to see that in this work environment, developing the requirements through conversations and white board sketches can work out (assuming the Project Sponsor actually knows the requirements).

But …. Does this description match what you see at work? Is the work environment described above anything like what you see at work?

My experience is that this kind of work environment is quite rare and in most companies it is not actually achievable overall. It would require a massive overhaul of the company, which would actually not be worth any benefits they might achieve. Instead, you might see this kind of work environment in small, well-defined areas of the company.

….

How is this model typically broken, and what are the consequences for requirements work?

These are the primary reasons the model breaks:
* The Project Sponsor does not have the time or the knowledge to sit with the development team and give them the requirements
* Your company is structured as silos and centers of excellence so there will be outside people, such as database, security, ops, and testing, that will be required to work with the team to complete all the work
* The team is distributed over distance and time – they cannot all work together at the same time
* There are a lot of users impacted by the work and all of them have to be considered when developing the requirements, not just what the Project Sponsor thinks needs to be done

What all of these things lead us to is the need for a requirements professional to elicit the requirements and document them in the best way to share that knowledge with people who are not physically present. For the vast majority of us, we need to document requirements because we cannot share them through conversation and white board sketches alone.

I do not mean to suggest that you have to produce big documents, nor do I think you should write all the requirements once at the start of the work effort.

….

There has been some fascinating research about the brain in recent years. What it tells us is that we as humans are genetically designed to respond to the present moment. We are not good at remembering things once the moment has passed, nor are we good at thinking of future impacts. Now clearly some people are good at those things, but most people are not.

Think about the last meeting you attended. If you did not take notes, how long did it take before you forgot what was discussed and what the action items were? Science tells us that as people leave the meeting, their brain drops a significant percentage of short term memory to leave room in short term memory for what they will be doing next.

This is why taking notes at a meeting is so important!

So even in an environment where everyone is together and having conversations, it is important to make notes of at least the decisions that were made and the action items that need to be addressed.

This is even more important when the team cannot sit together having conversations all day long. Any of the team members who are having discussions have to make notes to share with the rest of the team. Even if they can talk with the other people by overlapping work schedules, if they do not make notes for themselves, they will forget information that needs to be shared.

….

So what is the answer? I think we still need people who are trained in requirements elicitation, analysis, and a variety of ways to document information.

Here is an outline of an approach I have seen work really well:
1. The Business Analyst meets periodically with the person who is paying for the work. This might be a Project
Sponsor or a Product Manager.
2. The Business Analyst works with that person to determine the scope of the work – what are they paying for?
3. Based on that information, the Business Analyst determines what needs to be done to elicit the user stories. It might be working with the Project Sponsor or Product Manager. It might be working with various SME’s. It might be working directly with end users.
4. Before a new iteration of work, the Business Analyst works with the people who know the requirements (and often a testing professional) to develop the scenarios of a small number of user stories that will be implemented next.
5. This information is provided to the sponsor and the development team so they can determine what work will be done in the coming iteration.
6. The Business Analyst sits with the development team and determines what they need to know in terms of detailed requirements. The Business Analyst brings the right people to the team to discuss detailed requirements. In the situation where this is a lot of people, the Business Analyst may need to start work one iteration ahead of the development team, working on the detailed requirements to have them ready when the team is ready to implement them. In that case, the Business Analyst is the person that the team talks to in order to discover the requirements.
7. The Business Analyst creates just the right documentation to share the information with team members who are not local. This may be as simple as photographing sketches on a white board and posting the photos on the team’s online page.

The goal here is for the Business Analyst to work with the Project Sponsor ahead of the development team to be sure work is continuously streaming to the team. The idea is not to produce documents because some process said that every project has to have exactly those documents. Instead, you determine based on your particular situation what provides the most value.

….

It all starts with writing user stories and producing scenarios for them. Most likely the Project Sponsor will also want to collaborate with you to manage the user stories. And you, the Business Analyst, are the right person to determine how much and what kinds of documentation are needed to coordinate the work of your team.

New BA Video Tips

http://www.youtube.com/user/Wyyzzk

I have set up a video channel for Business Analyst tips on YouTube.
There are 15 videos there at present including:

  • 5 steps to better use cases – parts 1 and 2
  • Business rules versus Technical Constraints
  • Use Stories versus User Cases
  • Business Analyst Career Paths
  • and 10 videos on how a BA would start to work on a project
  • There are 10 different project types, so 10 different videos

I’ll be adding more over time, so let me know if there is something you want me to make a video about!

Here is the link again:
http://www.youtube.com/user/Wyyzzk

Pass on the link to other BA’s you know.