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Agile User Stories – A Promise for a Conversation

One thing I like most about being a Product Owner is that I get to engage with many different types of people on a day-to-day basis. As a Product Owner who is part of a Scrum team, I especially enjoy building relationships with the rest of my team members. As we all get to know each other, we learn the best ways we communicate together, to ensure we are all executing on sprints successfully.

For those teams who are looking to convert from a Waterfall Methodology to an Agile Methodology, this kind of interaction may seem really foreign. I’ve worked with and coached teams who have used the “throw it over the fence” mentality, and I’ve seen all the ways this approach doesn’t work. Not communicating leads to many kinds of consequences, with the worst being a team developing, testing, and releasing software that doesn’t meet the desired business outcomes. As a result, precious time and resources are lost, because the requirements weren’t initially discussed, clarified, and iterated upon up front.

Backlog Grooming meetings helps us maximize the value of “A Promise for a Conversation”. The Product Owner will present her set of user stories she would like to discuss within a timebox, and is essentially asking the Scrum team to poke holes in her logic. Personally, I’ve gone into a Grooming meeting with one set of user stories, and based on the feedback I received, realized I had to reconstruct my User Stories in a way that made sense to the Development and QA team.

Although that may feel defeating to a Product Owner, it’s actually a great outcome you should feel good about, because we as a team held a conversation before we actually got to execution. This way, we prevented confusion and ambiguity from being “thrown over the fence”, and prevented wasted time and resources. Product Owners should expect to get constructive feedback from the Dev and QA team on how user stories are constructed, and many questions should be asked in order to make sure the entire team understands what needs to be delivered.

Starting these kinds of conversations in Grooming meetings for the first time may feel very unnatural, especially if the members of your team are distributed, or not used to having two-way conversations. Product Owners should initiate these conversations by asking questions, and encouraging participation from the entire team. This may mean calling on the more quiet or shy members – in fact, those individuals may have the most insightful comments!

Remember, your Scrum team members are your esteemed colleagues, and should be treated as such. The more comfortable the team gets with this level of conversation, the better feedback you as a Product Owner will receive, and the quality of your User Stories will improve. Here are some open-ended questions Product Owners can ask the team about their User Stories in Backlog Grooming meetings:

  • What doesn’t make sense to you? What additional information do you need?
  • What details might be missing? Are there any scenarios I haven’t accounted for?
  • What holes can you poke in this logic? Is there a better way of doing this?
  • What else do you need to provide a high-level estimate for this story?

Hopefully this list is a good start! What other questions do you ask your team to promote conversation about your user stories? I’d love to see them in the comments!

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