Advice on splitting stories

One of the most common reasons we reject people interviewing for coaching or product ownership related roles is an inability to grasp the purpose and value in splitting stories effectively, especially lacking an understanding of vertical slicing.

This is also a commonly requested topic for me at the meetup or speaking engagements. Yet it is a topic I have struggled to effectively explain. The conversation often ends up as a narrow technical example on certain techniques, or difficult stories or becomes too abstract for people to apply. In short it is a large and complex topic.

But this video sums up the notion of story splitting and in particular vertical slicing and the ‘why’ behind the method so perfectly that I felt I had to share it.

“Successful problem solving requires finding the right solution to the right problem. We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.”

Russell Ackoff

Dr Ackoff sums up the issue with the analogy of the parts of a car, if you assess the purpose of a car to get you to a destination then an engine alone is worthless, even the best designed and most efficient engine cannot get you to your destination. Until it is connected to the minimal set of features to achieve the user’s purpose it is useless and remains useless.

Building any feature that does not work end to end adds no value, and building any feature that does not support the purpose of the user also adds no value. But more crucially it is often the interaction between layers or between components that is the most complex aspect of any development, be it a car or software. and the notion that we can build an engine, and a gearbox and fit them together later and expect them to work seamlessly is laughable. But I hear it all the time in software design.

A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system.

W. Edwards Deming

We’ll build the database first then add the other layers, or we’ll work on an API layer 3-6 months in advance of the front end. It is as if we assume that the integration is the easy bit and worse is the assumption that we have anticipated every need of the user (and omitted everything they don’t need) before we design and build the interface, and before we ask for any feedback. And yet as software designers; planners; and project managers we repeat this error over and over, never learning from the pain of not using vertical slicing for splitting stories.

I believe our fundamental attribution error is the focus on the blocks of functionality (the components of the car) rather than the interactions, and rather than focusing on the purpose of the tool and user feedback we plan for efficiency of the workforce. The result is an optimized workforce and an inefficient workflow. We create a sub-par product that has efficient working components but do not effectively work together, and generally this results turf wars over interfaces that do not match the use cases and last ditch efforts to fit square pegs in round holes.

We can learn so much from Dr Ackoff, software alone is not the system, software is a tool, it becomes a system only when it is in use. The only way we can know if the software is efficient is by putting working software in front of a user and for them to use it and give feedback. So the only good way to split a story is in such a way that you are able to get feedback from the user that helps shape the design or to assist in making decisions.

If a story cannot lead to feedback or use, then it has no value, it becomes inventory or work in progress, it is a liability rather than an asset. That Database or API layer that is built with nothing utilizing it is not benefiting you, it is waste, it is an over engineered liability and the pain comes when you integrate it with other components. This extends to unused data fields or unused end points, “we know we will need them later” is a poor excuse for creating additional WiP (work in progress).

Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival

W. Edwards Deming

We as Agile practitioners can learn so much from Dr Deming and Dr Ackoff we are building systems, and the development process itself is a system, if we applied a little more systems thinking I believe we could be far more effective.

But as Deming said “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival ”

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