Sunday, April 17, 2011

Excuse me, I'd like to...ask you a few questions

I once worked with somebody who had the following pinned up on their wall for easy reference during the many teleconferences in which they participated:
Use questions for clarity:
  • What?
  • Why?
  • How?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • Which?
Not a bad idea that, a little prompt to make sure you really understand a topic. I don’t have a reminder up on my wall but I always like to try and run through these when appropriate. (Well, and when I remember.)

I was thinking about these in the context of agile software development, and how they can help various roles and guide activities. Let’s look at each of them in turn. I’m going to approach this from the perspective of a team following scrum, but I think the general principles apply to all approaches to software development.

Is everyone office based? In the same office or spread across more than one? Where is the customer? And other stakeholders? Some arrangements are better than others. The answer to the WHERE question is definitely important, but usually something few agile software development projects can influence very much. Most folks would agree that the ideal set up is collocation with an onsite customer. If you can get that…awesome. If not, recognize the shortcomings and know how to mitigate the problems they might present as best you can.

The WHO question can apply to a number of things. Who is on the development team? Who is the customer? Who are the users? And so forth. From the scrum perspective it’s really important to have identified who the product owner is. The product owner is such a key role for successful scrum because of their product visioning and feature prioritization work.

I struggled initially with WHICH. It has less obvious utility than the other questions. I think primarily though it can be thought of as your prompt to consider prioritization. Prioritization is absolutely key in scrum. Which projects should we fund? Which themes do we want to target for this release cycle? Which features are of highest value? Which features are risky or are we unsure how to do?

Everyone involved in a software development effort should be clear on WHAT they’re building. Initially WHAT is primarily the province of the product owner. They start a release cycle by consolidating input from the customer, other stakeholders, the team, their own ideas and provide a statement of what the product needs to do.

The WHY is important, possibly the most important question of all to my mind for a couple of reasons.

Firstly it lets you check that a feature is really needed and worthy of a place in your product backlog. With something akin to the five why’s technique you should be able to explain the necessity for every feature in terms of one of the following business values:
  • Protect revenue
  • Increase revenue
  • Manage (reduce?) cost
  • Increase brand value
  • Make the product remarkable
  • Provide more value to your customers
Product owners should be very clear on why anything in the backlog is needed. If you as product owner find you can’t tie a feature to one of the values above then you might want to ask yourself if you’re sure it’s needed.

Secondly, once the whole team understands the WHY of a feature we can harness everybody’s input for some creative thinking. Sometimes people think they need a feature because they assume certain things can’t be changed, or they don’t realize there are other ways to approach a problem they are trying to solve. Perhaps an existing feature can be adapted to meet their needs.

The question of HOW is almost as important as WHAT and WHY. Those three together form a kind of virtuous trio.

HOW is a question that cannot be answered by any one single role on a scrum team. Everyone has a contribution to this question. As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And with software that definitely applies. Figuring out the possibilities and weighing up the pros and cons and trade-offs involved will help lead to the best possible features implemented in the best possible ways.

Beware product owners that dream up the HOW as well as the WHAT and the WHY. Unless they’re from a development background it’s likely that not all of their HOWs are feasible or optimal.

Often the WHEN question is the one most businesses, customers and stakeholders obsess over. To some extent I think this is almost impossible to escape, although it is possible to put more emphasis on WHAT by stabilizing the WHEN with a fixed duration release cycle.

Once the team understands WHAT, WHY and HOW they can estimate the effort involved. If the team has a stable velocity this then allows the product owner to be quite predictive in answering WHEN and they can move features up and down the stack ranked backlog to accommodate the needs of the business as best as possible.

All righty then
Having reviewed all these question-words there are two key insights for me.
  • Certain roles on a scrum team are better positioned than others to answer certain questions (POs have a natural affinity with WHAT and WHY; developers with HOW)
  • Nobody on a scrum team has the exclusive preserve of any particular question: by working collaboratively and with everyone empowered to ask and answer any of these questions the talents of everyone can be harnessed to make better software.

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