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 ”

Can being remote enhance agility?

I am a very lucky person, I have my dream job. I work for a huge Solutions Provider as a member of their software consultancy group. The consultancy group has multiple physical offices in the St Louis area, and offices in Denver, New York and London. we have now decided to expand into the virtual space and launch a Virtual Office dedicated to collaborative software delivery. My role is to create this office, define the tools, practices, processes and then to build the team: hiring and supporting the staff and managing and growing the office. It is an incredible opportunity and it is not overstating to say that I wake up excited (and daunted) about it every day.

I wrote a while ago about the new role and about the challenge of remaining true to an Agile mindset. My goal was not to lose our agility as we became separated by technology and tools. https://yorkesoftware.com/2018/10/11/a-3-pipe-problem/

It was a surprise to discover that with the right attitudes and the right tools we are actually able to enhance our agility. We are actually more agile in a virtual space than we were in the physical space.

What is Agility?

To many this will sound like an exaggeration, but as a consultancy firm we sometimes operate in a less than optimal situation, there are challenges when you are working in a slightly abstracted situation. To be truly ‘Agile’ the goal is generally to get the team and business working together and to shorten feedback loops, deliver software quickly. But the reality is that ‘the business’ is a client. They are removed often physically which is bad enough but often they have other priorities and so are removed in an availability sense too. So whilst our teams are together, it is rare that we get the business (SMEs and Product Owners) on site and embedded with our team, when we can this is the ideal situation.

More often we get together for project kick-offs and planning and regularly for demos and retros. But stand-ups are often conducted via web conferencing tools, as are story writing and weekly planning/prioritization meetings. This puts a barrier between the team and the business, we do our best to break down these barriers but the reality is that they exist.

I call out being a consultancy as it is an extreme case but it also happens in most businesses, the PO and SMEs generally have another job and other priorities and the development team gets a slice of time and attention, so this is not unique to consultancy.

Brave New World

So understandably I went into this new venture with the expectation of doing my best to mitigate an already existing problem and to strive to not let it be worse in a Virtual Team.

In the early stages we found a tool called Sococo which is very hard to describe as technically it offers the same as many other remote communication tools, but it uses the metaphor of a physical office to make it easy for us to relate to the situation. When we used this tool something quite amazing happened, suddenly we were in the same metaphoric space as ‘the business’, we were truly working together. If I had a question for the PO I can drop by their office. If we need clarification from a SME we can invite them to join an Ad-hoc meeting.

We were no longer waiting for scheduled meetings to ask questions, we were chatting immediately. Feedback loops became immediate conversations, if someone was busy they would drop in between calls or other meetings rather than scheduling something formal. The casual nature of the metaphor brought us all together. This is how I imagined agile teams should behave in an office, but all too often logistics (read lack of meeting rooms) meant this was rarely a reality.

As a little tangent I worked with a delivery team a few years ago where the PO was available to the team all day but was in an office maybe a 60 second walk away. She made it clear the team could drop by or call her. But they never did. As an experiment I asked her to sit at a desk in the team area, immediately the team was a buzz of questions and conversation, we worked faster and discussions were spontaneous and relevant to the work at hand. This is how Sococo feels now. I can’t express how excited I am about it.

Daily Demos

An interesting thing has happened too, the team had an aspirational goal of daily demos, demonstrating completed stories and getting feedback on direction each day at stand-up. The aim was to challenge the team to keep stories small and to focus on shortening the feedback loop.

What happened instead was the realization that you don’t need to wait for stand-up. When a story was done the team would pull everyone together immediately get feedback and then discuss and plan what was next.

We realized that scheduled meetings for everything from story writing to stand-ups were primarily about availability of people and especially meeting rooms, they had little to do with the product or agility. When not restricted by availability of meeting rooms you can simply talk about what is needed when you need to. It is so liberating.
Naturally such a change requires a great deal of discipline to be effective but you have the potential to be focused on the shortest feedback loop, and reacting immediately.

By moving to a virtual environment we are becoming more agile than we were even together in the office, and having fun doing it. These may not sound like ground breaking discoveries but I can assure you they are having a profound impact on our work.

Brexit: manipulation or inspiration?

I recently saw an article where someone said that all leadership, sales and politics can be simplified to just two types of influencing motivations. Inspiration or Manipulation. Essentially you can be stimulated to act or you can be persuaded to act. (Push or Pull)

Manipulation

The manipulation aspect is fairly easy to understand. In leadership this can be reward or compensation, authority or threats. In sales this can be price incentives, offers, fear of missing out or fear of consequences of not having it. Politics is often the same, you will get ‘x’ reward – direct or indirect, or the other guy is worse he will take away ‘y’. We see it all the time it is part of our culture: reward; fear; peer pressure; even bullying; it is rational although not always obvious.

Inspiration

Inspiration is far harder. One person says I believe in ‘x’ and if you do too then you may be inspired to follow them, vote for them or buy from them. A great example would be green companies, we are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products or animal humane products because we are inspired by their values.
The problem with inspiration is that you limit your supporters to those that believe in the same things as you. For sales and politics this is not a great policy as it cuts down your target audience considerably. The benefit is that if someone shares your beliefs they are a powerful voice they are harder to manipulate and more resilient and enthusiastic about your cause.

Inspiring Leaders

By all accounts Steve Jobs was not likable but he was inspiring to his employees and his customers. The same is true for many inspiring leaders even the unpleasant ones. You don’t have to be a nice guy to inspire people you just need to be open about what you believe, to be clear why, and to stay true to your beliefs. Those that share your thinking will support you.

Painful Example

To give you an example of this in action let me talk about Brexit for a little while. Brexit is a difficult and complex topic, I am not an expert and am likely to oversimplify the situation so please don’t be offended. Although I am British I live in the USA and lived here during the referendum so did not get to vote. But I have family that lives in France and everybody British regardless of where they live feels the impact of this decision directly or indirectly. It has been an anxious time for all of us, and it is not over yet!

Background:

The UK joined the EEC in 1973, it was presented to the people as a trading union, over the next 45 years it turned into a confederation and now has an open desire to become a federation.
I think it is fair to say that most people in the UK did not know they had signed up for this, and felt that it has evolved without our consent. There is also a sense that we (the UK) have very little influence in the EU.
The decisions by the EU were often in alignment with our thinking and beneficial to us, or did not impact sufficiently to trigger an extreme reaction. There were a few notable exceptions like the Euro and fishing rights, but mostly the EU could be ignored, that is until it became apparent to the masses just how much power had been ceded to the EU.

The referendum was simply a choice: do you want the UK to remain a member of the EU or to leave the EU?

The EU has a mandate for an “Ever closer union” it is currently essentially a confederation of states, with a long term goal to become a federation of states. Ultimately a United States of Europe.
Currently the member states have ceded power for currency and monetary policy, trade agreements, fishing, agriculture, borders, migration and law in too many areas to list here. The longer term the expectation is a European army (including nuclear deterrent), central taxation, and further power. shifted away from individual states to the EU. To Remain is to support the move to becoming a United States of Europe.

To Leave would mean returning the ceded power to the UK and losing the benefits of membership, and likely exclusion from the EU in the future.

The arguments:

Those voting Remain claim that we have benefited from membership and will continue to benefit from trade and free movement, and that EU policy is broadly in alignment with our views so ceding the power to the EU is not an issue as we broadly agree with the decisions and laws created so far.

Those opposed (voting Leave) have quite a large and diverse number of objections to the EU but the majority seem to focus on the issue that the European Commission – the body that creates and proposes laws and legislation – is appointed and not elected, and that they are not transparent. We ‘the people’ have no influence in the laws proposed or in the appointment of the law makers. For a country with a strong democratic history this is a big issue for many. The UK has almost no influence direct or indirect on the EU, we are passengers along for the ride.
And to really set people off, the leader of this group Jean-Claude Juncker is on record for saying : “When it becomes serious, lie to them” and that in relation to a French referendum: if they vote Yes he will act and if they vote No, he will ignore them and continue anyway.

“When it becomes serious, lie to them”

Jean-Claude Juncker

The vote

Interestingly looking at the two arguments it appears that the Remain have the Inspirational goal and the Leave are based on manipulation and fear.

But the campaign changed that drastically. The Prime Minister David Cameron had the support of his cabinet, the support of the leaders from all the major parties, support of the mainstream media (apart from a few loonie papers), it had uncharacteristically overt bias from the BBC in support of the EU, not to mention celebrity endorsements all over the place. All the PM had to worry about were a few dissenting voices in his own party and UKIP – a fringe party that struggled to get a seat in parliament. He felt the referendum would be a slam dunk. In any other situation he could quite reasonably expect a huge landslide with the way the deck was stacked in his favour.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is voting.png

The Leave campaign was led by a less then credible man that had the aura of a very dubious used-car salesman. I think at the start of the campaign most people felt that the outcome was a foregone conclusion and the vote was simply an opportunity to warn the EU that we are not to be taken for granted and we would like our voices heard in the future.

The primary Remain campaign strategy was “Name calling”

Watching the campaign unfold was shocking to me. The Remain campaign rather than talking up the benefits of the EU or the inspirational goal of the EU, they decided to make their primary campaign strategy to call Leavers names.
Almost the entire Remain campaign seemed to be centered around the claim that if you vote Leave you must be a racist bigot.
Rather than choosing to inspire or even discuss reasonably, Remain were so confident of victory they chose to belittle those that didn’t agree with them. Unsurprisingly those voters with reasonable concerns felt ignored and insulted. They felt manipulated and pressured and that their only voice left was a vote in a secret ballot box.

Leave perhaps in response to the arrogance of the Remain strategy took on a much more inspirational campaign, they talked about “taking control of our destiny”, “taking back our borders”, “making our own trading agreements”, “making our own laws” All this was about independence and autonomy, an inspirational call to arms. It played on out dated notions of empire and sovereignty and in many cases was meaningless rhetoric but it nevertheless inspired the voters.

The Leave campaign certainly had a fair share of manipulation with claims (many questionable) about money not going to the NHS and the waste of funds in the EU, crazy expenses of EU politicians, and there was certainly a vocal minority that wanted to block immigration. But this was all secondary to the notion of independence and autonomy.

In contrast the Remain had similar wild and questionable claims, but I hardly ever heard anyone in the Remain campaign say anything positive about the EU for the UK. It was all just negativity about those voting Leave. Or edge-case examples of how very small groups of people would be worse off. There was nothing inspiring in the campaign nothing to feel good about.

There is an old adage that when you insult the person rather than the policy you have lost the argument, and I think that is what has happened.

When you insult the person rather than the policy you have lost the argument.

Even in the aftermath of the vote, the Remain voters talk about how Brexit will hurt them personally or someone they know, or the near-term disruption to the markets and trade, or the retaliation we should expect from the EU. For people inspired to independence and autonomy, the obstacles, disruption and short-term issues will not change their mind, they have an inspirational long-term vision (that may very well be flawed) but it can’t be countered by complaining about the impact to individuals. They believe in a better future or at least one in which they have some control. Threats of retaliation by the EU just further reinforce the view that they were right to vote leave. I hear a lot of people that were on the fence during the vote but seeing the EU’s attitude since the vote they are now far more against the EU than before.

In my opinion, If you want to counter the Leave vote you need to inspire people to stay, and from what I can see no one has tried. You need to shout from the roof tops why the EU is good for the future and how you and the EU will listen and address their concerns.

Outcome

The result was a clear and surprising victory for the Leave campaign, the leaders were surprised and confused they had no expectation of winning. and Remain had no plan for what to do if they lost. The country is now confused and lacking direction, the losers are in power trying to achieve something they opposed. People we know and care about are in a situation of confusion and uncertainty. Who knows whether things will be better in the long-run we will have to wait and see.

I think it is a rather extreme example of the power of inspiration and the inherent weakness of manipulation. Threats and promises don’t work if a person can be inspired.

In my opinion the Leave campaign did not win, the Remain campaign went all out to lose. When you openly insult your electorate it is hardly surprising that they rebel against you.

The Lesson

For those in a position of leadership it should be an eye-opener to the power of inspiration. State your intent, your vision and those that share it will be fierce supporters. But if you choose to lead through manipulation, your hold on your followers only lasts until someone makes them a better offer.

We all want to be inspired, we all want to share a vision and work towards it but all too often our leaders don’t share their thinking or in some cases believe we can be manipulated, or worse need to be manipulated, the result is that we become what they believe, we react to how they treat us.

We want leaders that inspire us (and I don’t mean political opportunism) but genuinely tell us what they believe and the “Why” behind their actions and decisions. We want to support these leaders because we believe in the same thing.

Unfortunately inspiration alone is insufficient, you also need a plan. Brexit is now a mess, there was inspiration for the vote but no plan for what to do when they won.

The absence of a plan is disastrous:

Vision without action is a daydream, Action without vision is a nightmare.

Proverb.

Right now Brexit looks like a daydream and for many Remain looks like a non-democratic nightmare. Whatever the outcome we are losers.

Note:

It is always tricky using politics as an example but I have tried to be impartial. This is not meant to be a debate on the politics. I just want to highlight the contrast in impact when you inspire rather than manipulate. If you would like to comment could you comment on the this rather than Brexit, there are plenty of forums for that.