Radical Refinements: Transform Story Refinements to Be More Engaging & Effective
This article describes a common anti-pattern seen when refining the backlog and offers some actionable techniques to make story refining more efficient and engaging for all team members.
For the purposes of this article, the process of discussing backlog items (stories) for clarity and shared understanding by the team is called story refining. There are many terms used to describe this process among the different agile frameworks: story writing, story drafting, and backlog grooming, to name a few.
Typically, the product owner or agile business analyst is responsible for managing this process within a delivery team, but any member of the team can benefit from these points. For simplicity, this responsible member is referred to as the product owner.
Does this sound familiar?
Have you ever attended a story refining meeting where:
- Few are participating.
- The discussion circles around the same points over and over? It’s been an hour, and the team is no closer to getting stories into a ‘ready to work’ state than when you started.
- The conversation sounds more like a contract negotiation over the wording of acceptance criteria (AC).
- The team walks away without a common understanding of the story.
These scenarios are side effects of an anti-pattern where we try to completely refine a story in one session.
So what can be done?
The first step in addressing this anti-pattern is to shift the thinking that refining a story happens within a single event. Think of it instead as a process comprised of many different activities and steps. While we want to get items into a ‘ready to work’ state for the delivery team, we often conflate the goal of prepping stories with the true goal of story refining, which is to collectively advance the understanding and clarity of stories. By focusing on the true goal, stories will eventually become ready in the eyes of the delivery team as a by-product of the continued refinement of a story.
The definition of success begins to look very different when we start to approach story refinement as a process that results in the continued growth of understanding and story clarity. No longer is the focus to get as many stories as possible in a ‘ready to work’ state. Below are some actionable techniques that can be applied to any story refining meeting to help achieve the true goal of the time spent together.
Allow for reflection time if a story, or collection of stories, is complex or new to the team. It may be best to present these items at a high level and spend more time capturing the types of questions being asked by the team, noting which spikes may be necessary, and determining if other members (subject matter experts (SMEs), users, etc.) need to be present for subsequent meetings. Then move on. Understanding that not all, and in fact, most stories cannot be refined in one sitting allows the team the time to think over a new or complex feature before committing to any work. Allowing the team to process details or gather additional information can make subsequent conversations more engaging and efficient.
Grouping stories into themes is a technique that is helpful when presenting a new idea or feature set, but it can also be beneficial when discussing the outcomes of a particularly robust feature. Focusing on a group of stories can help to elevate the understanding of the desired business outcome before diving into the details of each story needed to satisfy the outcome. Seeing how each story fits together with other stories and even within a feature ahead of time drives clarity once the team starts working a story.
Setting a fixed amount of time (timeboxing) is a great way to signal a point of reflection. This can be done by setting an arbitrary amount of time to discuss each story, say five minutes. At the end of that time, if there is still much discussion around a specific topic, it could signal that some other action may be needed.
If the conversation is healthy and is driving towards clarity, extending the discussion time may be warranted, but consider these alternatives:
- Is there an opportunity for building a proof of concept with a clearly defined goal/question to prove? If the conversation has generated more questions than answers, then revisit the topic in a subsequent refinement when the team has more information.
- Is more reflection time needed? Perhaps the topic is a complex one, and the conversation could be a sign that some additional time for reflection is needed. Move on from this topic, and plan to bring it back at a different time.
- Do we need more information from the client? Drawn-out conversations may imply the need for more business information to be gathered before continuing to refine the story. Take note and move on from this topic.
Assign a scribe to take notes directly into the story tool or other agreeable place during the story refining meeting. Any salient points discussed in refinement should be captured to help the delivery team in the future. By rotating the scribe, either per meeting or per story, you increase engagement by assigning a task and reduce the focus lost when taking notes while presenting or sharing a screen.
Above all, it is important to accept not completely refining a story in a single session, as that is not the primary goal. Remember, the true goal of story refining is to collectively advance the understanding and clarity of a story with the delivery team.
Beyond shifting your mindset, understanding the true goal of refinement, and applying techniques such as story timeboxing, you need some foundational truths to exist in your team to make refinements more engaging and effective.
Engaged delivery team with holistic ownership of the backlog
It takes a village to manage the backlog. While the product owner is responsible for story or feature prioritization, lean on all members to contribute knowledge and expertise to prepare stories to work. For example, encourage the team to add stories to the backlog when they identify gaps or story splits. Through collaboration and collective ownership of the backlog, the team will drive to story clarity faster.
High levels of trust among the team
Reviewing the acceptance criteria (AC) should be a small part of the story refining process. If the team has a high level of trust and strong clarity of the desired story outcome, the specific phrasing of the AC matters less. Describing the story’s desired outcome and articulating business value allows the product owner to capture the shared understanding of the AC without it becoming a contract negotiation. Stating this at the first few refining meetings of a newly formed team could help drive toward this level of trust.
Willingness from the whole team to ask questions
We all hold pieces of knowledge that may increase shared understanding of the story. It is incumbent on the team to ask questions as these stories make their way into a ‘ready to work’ state. Along with trust, there must be a safe environment where the team feels comfortable asking questions such as:
- What is the value of a specific feature?
- What information or assumptions have changed since the last conversation about the topic?
- Speaking up when an AC does not feel right or feasible.
- Is this story too big?
Starting with the big picture — often
As we drive the creation of stories from a detailed roadmap or story map, it is important for the delivery team to understand how all the pieces fit together. Getting stuck in the details can cause churn in conversation and waste time. Continually reminding the team about the big picture can solidify the business value and lead to the overall clarity necessary to dig into the details.
The biggest benefit to focusing on the true goal of story refining is saving time. While it may seem counterintuitive to save time when stories are refined over multiple sessions rather than just a single session; it isn’t just the time spent refining the story that can be counted toward the overall benefits of this approach. By focusing on the desired outcomes, and a high-level understanding of a story, it should create enough detail for the development team to feel comfortable moving the story into a ‘ready to work’ state.
When clarity is the focus of story refining the following happens:
- Less churn due to confusion.
- Less rework due to understanding the desired outcome (versus being forced into the weeds, potentially discussing solutions before solutions are needed).
- Prevents rework during implementation.
- Less planning is needed by focusing on the business outcome instead of the story details — allowing the team the ability to ask questions at the most relevant time, during development.
All of this adds up to time savings.
In addition to time savings, there is also a noticeable improvement in engagement and collaboration from the team. Driving clarity through valuable conversation, as well as identifying when a conversation has passed its usefulness, is key to continued engagement and collaboration.
In summary, to create an engaging and collaborative story refinement that collectively advances the understanding of a story, focus on clarity of a story and how the story fits into the big picture. Using techniques such as story timeboxing, or reflection time will drive towards story clarity faster, ultimately saving time and improving team dynamics along the way.