Agile with External Clients: Master User Story Facilitation

The Agile with External Clients series continues today with the topic of requirements facilitation and management, with user stories as the primary vehicle for the task. This article’s mantra is captured by one of my favorite phrases around Agile, which comes from the last sentence of the Agile Alliance website’s entry, What is Agile Software Development?:

…to craft the code and the team such that the inevitable requirements churn was not a crisis.

This is the core difference for me between Agile Software Development approaches and the phased, non-iterative processes that dominate much, if not most, of the industry. Over the years, the most effective tool I have had in my arsenal for transitioning groups into more iterative, collaborative approaches to gathering, refining, and prioritizing requirements has been user stories. When I say user stories, I am referring to the format and philosophy laid out by Mike Cohn in his indispensable book User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development. I am not referring to the user stories as defined in Behaviour-Driven Development (BDD), but that is another topic for another time.

As a consulting or professional services group, your clients will rarely see your team using the more technical and development-centric aspects of Agile and Scrum, unless you embed delivery teams on-site at the client. Even then, the focus of their interaction with your team is translating needs into working software. In light of that, everyone on your team needs to master the art of user story writing and facilitation.

For your clients to truly understand the power and flexibility of an Agile approach, they need to feel the difference between handling requirements in Agile and however they have been doing them before. If they are accustomed to heavy up-front design, analysis, and specification, they need to see how this approach doesn’t require that they pretend to know the future, just enough to know the core of what they build and how much they want to initially invest. Together, you can knock out those key pieces of functionality and decide what else to add collaboratively, with the invaluable insight of seeing part of the application working already.

If the client has been handling requirements with a complete lack of process, with managers or stakeholders delivering requirements by walking up to a programmer’s desk, expert user story facilitation can show them how a bit of lightweight structure and cross-functional interaction serve to flesh out requirements in a way that weeds out those painful gotchas that so often plague the last stages of a project. A product backlog of concise, easy-to-read stories also paints a clearer picture of how much functionality and effort they are throwing into this project. I have found this provides a context for discussing choices and scope management with clients like this who are accustomed to a more chaotic mode of operation.

To master user story facilitation, your team members need to focus on a few key skills. First, team members need to be excellent at writing user stories, and the only way to do this is practice. Pair newcomers with veterans so they can watch and learn from them. Do you have internal projects for frameworks you develop and maintain? Make yourself express the work as user stories to get realistic practice so that your group doesn’t have to start their learning in front of the client. After all, you have a very narrow window to solidify trust with clients; more on that in another installment.

Second, team members need to develop prowess as user story facilitators. They must guide and encourage open discussion in a cross-functional group. This requires exceptional interpersonal skills, which should come as no surprise. Use the The Principle of Slices Instead of Layers to guide the group out of the tendency to express effort in terms like “the dev work”, “QA’s part”, and “the DBA tasks”. Guide the group toward expressing effort in bits of user-centric functionality that will involve all the cross-functional tasks as emphasized in The Rule of Concept to Customer. Are the stories centered on a group of services? Fine, the remote client that calls the service is the customer. When a facilitator leads a group through this transition, the result is an approach to requirements gathering and refinement focused on what we are making for our users and accounting for everyone’s contribution in making that happen.

There’s plenty more to say about facilitating user stories successfully, but we’ll stop there for now. Just remember that expertise with user stories will be one of the most direct ways to show customers that this is a refreshing and effective approach to managing requirements that makes the most of their valuable time and the money they are spending with you.

Agile with External Clients: To Run It Agile, Sell It Agile

This installation of the Agile with External Clients series shows the relationship between how an engagement is sold and how that affects a group’s attempt to execute the project using an Agile approach. Let’s start with a maxim for every member of a professional services group or consulting practice to burn into their mind:

The Sold Destiny Principle

The way something is packaged and sold frames the expectations of the customer.

One of my first questions when engaging with a new client is “How is your product/service sold?” This is an important question because of The Sold Destiny Principle. If services are being sold in a way that does not dovetail seamlessly into how those services are delivered, the team builds friction into the way their work is done, heaping frustration upon all parties involved, including the customers.

Many professional services and consulting engagements are sold through a fixed-bid approach. A prospective client drafts a Request for Proposal (RFP) which includes a writeup of what they (think they) want, and firms then take the RFP and respond with a proposal document. Unless a group’s focus is competing on a commodity level, this is a horrible approach. This drives the value proposition straight to price with marginal consideration for skill and quality of the solution delivered. A consulting group can look at an RFP, frame what they believe it would take to deliver a quality result, and the conversation stops there. The customer is then left to decide from a collection of proposals whose differences amount to who is cheapest, which proposal is the most aesthetically appealing, and which groups the customer has worked with in the past. (There is a fourth differentiator, which is how much schmoozing the salesperson has done. This is a horrible and costly way to compete, and generally conveys a lack of confidence in one’s product. But, I digress. Let’s save that for another post.)

The tragedy here is that it appears to the customer that every option carries all the uncertainty and false precision of phased approaches to software development. This is not the case. The salesperson whose delivery team uses an Agile, iterative approach has a keen competitive advantage. If you want to run your projects in an Agile manner, equip your salespeople to press this advantage.

The Agile practice that has not reached out to their salespeople must shoulder most of the blame for the friction between sales and delivery. After all, the salesperson is going on what they have known for their whole career and the approach to which the industry at large defaults. The cross-functional focus of Agile in general and Scrum in particular exists for a reason. Cross-functional participation in the Agile process enables a company to embrace The Rule of Concept to Customer, which most certainly includes your salespeople.

Due to the rigid, transactional nature of a fixed bid process, the contents of an RFP give a false impression. It’s a concrete description based upon a collective conscious from a group that has never seen the very thing they are attempting to describe. The requirements all appear to be must-haves, and are based upon having seen nothing. The truth is that it is a collection of must-haves and might-wants, liberally dressed with a not-so-sure vinaigrette.

An Agile engagement allows the salesperson to say something like this:

“Look, I know this RFP probably has things you know you need, plus some things you aren’t so sure about. Instead of you guys locking yourself into this 6-month heap of work, what if we broke it down into smaller blocks of investment, say 2 months in size? We’ll break these requirements down into the must-haves and might-wants, and get started on the must-haves.”

“Every 2 weeks we’ll show you the working software we have developed so far, and then we can talk about what you want to put into the next 2 weeks. You can switch up the priority on the items, and if you want to push some of them out and pull an equal amount work forward from the lower-priority work, that is not a probelm. It’s your 2-month block to spend as you want in 2-week increments.”

“As we close in on the 2-month mark, we’ll take a look at this together and see if you want to invest in the next 2-month block. If you don’t that is OK. You take the working software you have so far and run with it. If you want to continue, we’re more than happy to keep delivering new working functionality in 2-week slices for another 2 months. We’ll repeat that evaluation and decision process for the third block, and by the end you have a product that you have been able to shape as we go based upon seeing the working solution evolve and deciding what you want to put into it.”

I have seen that approach work very well, and it generates a loyalty among customers and a reputation for being a breed apart among consulting companies. Looking for the best way to run consulting engagements with Agile? Sell them with Agile.

Agile with External Clients

I speak at conferences around the country each year, most often on the topic of real-world, full-blown application of Agile Software Development using Scrum. I always appreciate when folks come to me after the end of a conference talk to ask questions about the topic of adopting or applying Agile in various scenarios. I usually end up having at least a couple new challenges to my assumptions, which helps me further inspect and adapt my approach to coaching and mentoring.

I will almost always have at least one person who presents what they think is the tough question, the one area where Agile and Scrum simply cannot work. The question, in the form an assertion, usually goes something like this:

“This stuff is all well and good when you are working inside a company and your clients are the people that work with you in the same company, but our clients are external customers, and we have fixed-bid projects, which is why we cannot use anything like this.”

The embedded question in statements like the one above is, “Can Agile, and Scrum in particular, be used when you do professional services work for external clients, even with fixed-bid projects?”

Yes, you can.

The person who presents me with a statement like that is usually dumbfounded when I respond that at least a third of my clients are consulting practices and professional services firms that do exactly what was just described. Not only can you do it, there are many scenarios where you should do it. Using an Agile, iterative approach to professional services engagements can be a formidable sales tool and competitive advantage.

In the coming days I will be sharing some insight on the nuances of adopting Agility with external customers based on my years of experience working with clients who have done that very thing.

Still a place for blogging

A few years ago, my blogging fell off sharply. There were multiple reasons for that. I began to spend my discretionary time elsewhere, including with my young child and playing World of Warcraft with my wife after the little one was asleep. Additionally, I began to lose interest in some of the main topics I had been writing about, in particular my involvement in the Debian project.

At that time, I began to wonder if perhaps blogging had become passé. Jokes about the ubiquity of banal blogs seemed to show up everywhere. I had adopted Twitter and Facebook fairly early, and I thought for some time that perhaps these social networking outlets were the successors to blogging.

They are not.

Blogging has always been a sort of mental sketchpad for me to tease out concepts, observations, and reflections that were too nascent at the time to make their way into a paper or a conference talk. I cannot think of any of those that would fit into a Facebook wall post, much less a 140-character tweet. I would find myself with an idea or thought in my head, but trying to cram it into these newer forms was so daunting I’d just let it pass. If I did try, it felt very constrained, like trying to give directions to your house in haiku or drinking a Wendy’s Frosty through a coffee stirrer. So, I have concluded that a blog still has a place for me, and some recent posts from other folks in my field lead me to believe that I am not alone in that viewpoint.

Any of you who used to read my stuff back when I was active will notice that I am no longer hosting this under the domain. My full name was not very prominent anywhere on the site, and now it’s in the URL. This was a change I had pondered before, but the advent of social networking made me certain I should go ahead and make the switch. Anonymity is increasingly scarce on the Internet, and since I’ve said more than enough out there to implicate me, I might as well embrace the trend.

So, welcome (back) and thanks for your time!