Story Generators

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Recently I’ve been looking again at Jobs to be Done and OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). I increasingly see them as story generators and a potential solution to the tyranny of the backlog I described last time.

When I first looked at Jobs to be Done (and OKRs actually) I wondered if they constituted a fourth, top, level on top of Epics, Stories and Tasks. I’ve long argued against having more than three levels of things to do (or requirements as we used to call them.) There are big meaningful things to do (stories), really big things which we don’t as yet understand but look really valuable (epics) and the immediate small things to do right now (tasks).

Actually, I’d rather think most things can be dealt with by two levels and one level is the even better. So adding a fourth “even bigger” thing on top of Epics just felt wrong. Technologists (like myself) have a tendency to map everything into hierarchies; inverted trees with fractal like branches. But not everything is, or should be, a hierarchy, mapping the world into a tree like structure can add complications.

Unlike stories (and epics and tasks) Jobs to be Done don’t really lend themselves to the transactional “Done”. While you could put a Job all the way to Done on your Kanban board and track it from “To do” to “Done” in reality the customer job still exists. Sure you’ve improved it but you can improve it again – another example of Stable Intermediate Forms. This seems to be the great potential of Jobs to be Done, they keep on giving: as much as you improve your product to help with the job you can still improve it some more.

So each time you analyse the Job to be Done you should be able to find more stories to deliver to improve it. Hence the Job to be Done is not a “story” to do, it is a Story Generator. Every time you look at the job to be done you find more stories, every time you examine the result of the latest improvement you find more stories. The job will never be done. Some might see that as a bad thing but that also means the job presents a stable focus for ongoing work.

The same might be true of OKRs but in a slightly different way. Because the objective is reviewed periodically – every quarter or so – it lacks the continuity of Jobs to be Done but perhaps allows the team to switch targets, maybe it is stable enough.

The key results may well be stories in their own right, or they may be things which lead to stories. Either way one can expect some key results to be achieved and marked as done regularly. As they fall they are either replaced by new key results building towards the objective (which themselves lead to stories) or new key results are added for new objectives.

I’m sure there are other story generators out there but the key thing for me is not the mechanism but the existence of the generator. Once you have a story generator you do not need a big backlog of things to do. The generator will replenish the backlog whenever you need more stories – either because you have done them or the value has fallen.

Using a generator removes the need to have a big backlog which removes the tyranny of the backlog. The team are now free(r) to concentrate on delivering value towards their objective.

Finally, I wonder if anyone has used both OKRs and Jobs to be Done together? Right now they feel like alternative generators to me, having both seems like a bit like overkill. Although I accept that maybe OKRs are more corporate and Jobs to be Done are more product focused. Anyone got any experience using them together?


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Money talks: A tale of two change programs

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Like many in the agile community – or what sometimes gets called the agile industrial complex – I am all for piecemeal adoption, small scale before large scale, get good at doing stuff then expand it out… – what else would you expect from Mr Diseconomies of Scale?

The “start small” and grow might even be regarded as the canonical approach to agile implementation. But from time to time I run across something that makes me wonder…

Four or five years back I got involved with an agile transformation programme at a large financial institution, not a bank, more of a mass market asset manager. I was attached to a small team trying to make the whole company agile.

The coaches viewed themselves as a gorilla movement, changing the organization from within. They had some success, there was a bunch of stuff the agile teams and the coaches were doing wrong but that is another story. This was a licensed insurrection.

As is often the case, this team found it lacked the ability to ask the big questions and get people outside the team (often the higher ups) to engage or change themselves. The organization wanted agile down in the engine room – at the code face – but they didn’t want to rethink how they set requirements and approached projects. The whole organization was chronically project driven, obsessed with long term planning and offshore development. Economies of scale thinking ran riot.

Because the agile change was at the team level the product owners lacked authority to make real decisions – like not delivering functionality. Yes the organization wanted to “be agile” but the management cadre didn’t see any need to change their own behaviour.

One day I met two men who ran the company’s “Software Process Group.” They were guardians of the formal process and “working practices”. My immediate reaction was that they wanted to kill agile and stick with ISO-9000, PRINCE2, CMMI and certified approaches. They scared me. But actually they were very clued up. They got agile. They saw it was better than the current process.

These two had no role in the agile transformation, their role was to ensure the company kept its CMMI level two certification. This was really important to the company because this allowed the company to do business. They told me a story…

During the previous 20 years the company had grown large, very large, by buying up competitors and companies in related markets. These companies had been thrown together and costs stripped out. One day the financial regulator came to the company and said:

“We have been examining your IT functions. They are not fit for purpose. If you don’t fix it within 12 months we are going to withdraw your license to do business.”

Shit hitting the fan doesn’t come much bigger than this.

The company went to IBM and said “Help! – Fix it – we’ll will pay anything.”

IBM flooded the company with people. IBM imposed a process – a traditional CMMI compliant process. IBM changed the company, not just the programmers but everything. The company did as IBM told them.

And don’t imagine it was cheap. I bet that the change and IBM fees were on the agenda at every board meeting during that period. The men I had met were the remnants of that programme, they worked for the company not IBM, their job was to ensure the company maintained accreditation and the financial regulator wouldn’t have cause to come back.

Now contrast this with the piecemeal, small scale, bottom-up change that us agile folk are so fond of. Time and time again we get stuck: “the business won’t change”, “we can’t get access to the senior people”, “existing processes and expectations are unassailable”, “projects are killing us” and so on.

I’m sure IBM faced many of those same problems but they had one big advantage: They were expensive.

OK, they had a second: the loss of license would destroy the client company. But when threatened people often respond by sticking with that they know so maybe it was a double edged sword.

Because IBM were expensive they had access to anyone they wanted access too. Because they were expensive they had authority. And if someone didn’t want to make the changes IBM suggested then IBM could simply ask the next person up.

Once again money is information: by spending lots of money with IBM the company was signalling it really wanted these changes to happen.

Agile changers may not like big change, they may point to the inherent risks, they may point that use of authority conflicts with self-organization, they may understand that diseconomies of scale rule and they may point to a bunch of other risks.

But they should also note one clear advantage: a big expensive change programme brings authority all of its own.

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