Posts Tagged ‘Business Analysis’

Deciding “What” To Build

Posted on February 20th, 2011 by Dennis Stevens  |  No Comments »

This is my presentation from Product Camp Atlanta. I address two big issues facing product management. First, establishing an approach to connect product strategy with business strategy, customer value, and risk. It provides the structure for feedback and rapid reassessment of the product road map (backlog). Second, the presentation demonstrates how to leverage the model to reduce the miscommunication, over analysis, over design, and over engineering that leads to scope creep and misalignment between the desired solution and what is actually delivered.

I Signed the Oath of Non-Allegiance

Posted on July 18th, 2010 by Dennis Stevens  |  2 Comments »

I signed the oath of non-allegiance 300dpi.png

Alistair Cockburn, in the Oath of Non-Allegiance, has issued a call to action for the software development community to stop bickering and calling out contending methodologies. He has called for “discussion about whether an idea (agile plan-driven impure whatever) works well in the conditions of the moment.” As someone who has earned his PMP, CSM , received certificates from the Lean Enterprise Institute, and who completed David Anderson’s Kanban Coaching workshop – I have had the opportunity to see this bickering up close. I have occasionally even as the target of it.  Here is Alistair’s call to action:

I promise not to exclude from consideration any idea based on its source, but to consider ideas across schools and heritages in order to find the ones that best suit the current situation.

This is becoming an increasing familiar theme. We see it in Laura Brandeburg’s Business Analyst Manifesto. It is expressed by by Liz Keogh, Jean Tabaka and Eric Willeke in “A Community of Thinkers”. I am involved in a PMI Agile team where we are trying to make sense out of the benefits associated with bringing together the PMI Body’s of Knowledge (Portfolio, Program, and Project) in the context of Agile. I am working with the IIBA’s Agile Business Analyst core team to express the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge in an Agile fashion. I also participate in various Yahoo and Google groups where we are working at having these kinds of conversations involving Kanban and Lean.

These teams and discussion groups bring together practioners and thought leaders from various communities working to understand and to share. Sometimes the discussions get heated. You have a lot of successful, intelligent people sharing their experiences and trying to make sense out of their successes while simultaneously trying to expand their world view. The awesome thing is that there is a lot of learning and connecting going on in these communities.

You may want to protect your turf -  but this is the future. The tools and resources that support software development have improved orders of magnitudes in the last two decades. It’s crazy to believe we don’t have a long way to go to figure out the best ways to deliver software – especially at the enterprise.  Tom Peters quotes General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army – “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” I choose to join the community who is looking for ways to honor the fundamental premise of the Agile Manifesto – We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

Project Conversations-Shared Understanding

Posted on December 28th, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  No Comments »

Most of the studies that discuss failed software development projects find misunderstood requirements and inadequate change management among the leading causes of failure. These failures can’t be adequately addressed just through more rigorous documentation or web based tools. Generating shared understanding is a social act – therefore, one of the elements of improving requirements is through improving the related social interactions or conversations.

But how do we go about improving conversations? Where are the engineering practices or process improvement techniques we can apply to consistently achieve improved performance? John Searles has written several books that break down conversations into a series of speech acts and even has a notation for describing a conversation. I found Searles work on Speech Acts to be very interesting. There is value in classification and understanding of patterns in conversations. But I am not sure this translates to an easily digestible approach. I also believe that conversations have flows and states, but I am also not sure that a process flow is an effective way to represent a conversation. image

I can’t break the process of the flows and states a cake baking in the oven goes through down to detailed steps. I can tell you when it might be appropriate to bake a cake, when we are ready to put the cake in the oven, what happens during the baking process, and I can tell you how to check to see if a cake is done. So the approach I am advocating here is to be able to know when a specific conversation is called for, what it takes to be prepared for a conversation, how to approach the conversation, and how to check and see if the conversation has been performed.

Conversations for Shared Understanding

A conversation for shared understanding often involves one person on the project learning something new from someone else on the project. Conversations for shared understanding are important between different functional groups and when defining expected outcomes. For example, requirements documents define what needs to be done on a project. The requirements documents by themselves are typically not adequate. The gap in understanding leaves room for the development organization to build something that is not optimal either from a development or a requirement standpoint.

I love college football. One Saturday when I first got married, I was watching a game on TV. I planned to head over to my friend Steve’s house later in the day to watch the afternoon game. My wife called down from upstairs to ask me to take out the trash. I agreed to do it, thinking I could grab it out of the kitchen on the way out the door after the current game before I went over to Steve’s house. Her context was very different from mine. She meant, right now – all the trash in every room of the house – and clean the bathroom’s while you are at it. So, while I agreed to her requirements, we didn’t have a shared understanding of the request.

When is a Conversation for Shared Understanding called for?

Anytime a lack of shared understanding slows down the project or creates rework or other waste. A lack of shared understanding happens all the time in projects – particularly between functional groups and early in a project. So a conversation for shared understanding is important early in a project. Typically, these early conversations should be around the overall context and objectives of the project. A conversation for shared understanding is also called for with each specific feature or request. On software development projects it is important everyone involved in delivering, verifying, or accepting a feature or project deliverable has a shared understanding. Conversations for shared understanding should be at the outcome and context level. They are not intended for the technical implementation details to be explained to business stakeholders. The point is to establish context and understanding of the outcomes necessary to optimize the performance of the project performers.

What does it take to be prepared for a Conversation for Shared Understanding?

The mood and perspective of the participants in the conversation will impact the ability to successfully perform these conversations. So each participant must have an intention to have a conversation that results in a shared understanding. They should be willing to put in the effort to review or understand any artifacts produced to seed the understanding. They must bring a belief that the other person’s context matters. Additionally, participants need to put some thought into the boundaries of the conversation. The performer will want to think about what they need to understand to be most effective in delivering this request. The requestor will want to consider what parts of the context, what outcomes, and what language is particularly important to ensure they get what they intended to ask for.

How do we approach a Conversation for Shared Understanding?

  1. The participants present their expectations and boundaries for the conversation.
  2. Each participant explains their understanding of the context, targeted outcomes, and significant language. The other participant(s) will note where their understanding varies.
  3. The discrepancies should be discussed, evaluated and resolved. Sometimes, the details of one participant will not be important. Sometimes, more specific discussion is necessary to gain clarity.
  4. The participants will agree when they have a shared understanding.

How can we check to see if the Conversation for Shared Understanding has been successful?

At the end of the conversation the participants should be able to present an understanding of context and outcomes in common language. As soon as either participant identifies a gap in understanding they should revisit the conversation. Over time, the participants establish a common background that reduces the effort required to establish a shared understanding.

Today, when my wife asks me to take out the trash I understand what she wants. We also have identified when it may be important to have a conversation for shared understanding. For example, when she sends me to the store for milk I ask her to take a minute and think about what else I should get while I am there. My experience is that she has a lot of background information that I am not aware of. If I go to get milk and don’t get the eggs and butter she needs I will be heading back to the store. Taking the time to have conversations for shared understanding will almost always accelerate the effective pace of the project.

The Agile Bargains

Posted on December 2nd, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  No Comments »

There is a nice summary of Kanban at It shows Feature Requests going into the Software Development Pipeline and Improved Software coming out.The article does a great job of showing how Kanban helps improve the flow of software development. Getting better at software development is important and Agile methods have been helping teams achive this goal. This is the first bargain of Agile-delivering software faster and with much higher quality then ever before. In most organizations however, this is only a small part of the business equation. Even when development is successful, a narrow focus on software  development narrows the value an organization will achieve. We also need to align of development with the most important needs of the business, balance development with adoption, and ensure improved business performance is achieved.


Feeding the Software Development Pipeline

Unless a company is a software development service provider, its business is not about software development. Software likely enhances the businesses ability to create value for it’s customers. So, while Agile development helps teams get better at software development – the goal is to get better at creating value for it’s customers. The focus of Agile software development is upside down. The focus should be on the capabilities of the business. Aligning development with the needs of the business requires understanding  which business capabilities will benefit from improvement and prioritizing these needs based on business value.

After using a business capability approach to need identification and prioritization, the business needs must be appropriately scoped and communicated to development. Over the last month I have been writing about Making Agile Requirements Work. need to make sure the requests that go into the Software Development Pipeline are clear and appropriately defined. Following the six principles of Agile Requirements That Work help with this feeding of the Software Development Pipeline.

  1. Articulate Purpose and Outcome
  2. Establish a Shared Language
  3. Provide a Stable View of the Business
  4. Support Progressive Elaboration
  5. Testable
  6. Prioritized and Reflect Business Value and Risk

Gaining Business Benefit

The other part of the equation is to ensure the organization adopts and supports the improved software. Once the Software Development Pipeline has produced Improved Software, it still isn’t valuable until the Business Capability has achieved the intended performance improvement. Just as the elicitation and analysis of requirements has to match the cadence and needs of Software Development. Software Development has to match the cadence and needs of the organizations ability to adopt and support Improved Software. Part of the overall feedback to the organization includes ensuring the capability improvement is achieved.


At every step in this equation different risks may exist. identifying, prioritizing, and scoping feature requests have risk associated with a lack of understanding. Software Development has risk associated with the Ability to Execute and Verify the delivered software. Benefit realization has risks associated with achieving adoption and being able to sustain and support change in the organization. These risks should be explicitly managed and feedback mechanisms should be in place to recognize the realization of risks. Failing to understand and manage risks in an integrated fashion will also diminish the organization’s ability to maximize benefit from it’s investment.

The Real Agile Bargain

The real agile bargain is the maximizing of economic outcomes by increasing the speed and focus an organization can improve and respond to the market. The Agile Business Value Equation is solved at the Business Capability Level. The ability to rapidly develop high quality software moves Technology from a change obstacle to become an change enabler. This happens at the intersection of Feeding the Software Development Pipeline, Developing the Software, and Gaining Business Benefit. Solving any of these parts independent of each other does not result in optimizing business agility.

Making Agile Requirements Work-NO 6

Posted on December 1st, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  No Comments »


On many software development projects, teams that are interested in getting started writing code early start by building the things they understand first. While this gets code started and in front of the customer as soon as possible, it isn’t necessarily the shortest time to value. This approach also sets the team up for the later stages of the project to be wrought with uncertainty and pressure from the business.  Two keys to successful Agile projects are focusing on early learning (mitigation of risk) and then rapid time to business value.  This is achieved by prioritizing the order that work is performed by the team.  When requirements analysis doesn’t clearly communicate the areas requiring risk mitigation and clearly identify those requirements that are most valuable to achieving the business outcome, then the team can’t appropriately prioritize the work.

Requirements reflect business value and risk

On most software development projects, not every requirement is equally valuable to the business. Some requirements are core to achieving the business outcome expected for the project and some are critical because they are  deliver on the brand of the business. But others, while valuable to the business, may address edge conditions or be nice to haves. Requirements need to be prioritized so that unknowns are addressed early, then higher business value requirements are addressed, then the remaining requirements. Part of the requirements analysis process should include an assessment of business value and risk.  If the prior principles have been applied, but the requirements are not worked with an eye toward risk mitigation and business value priority, the team will not be optimizing investment or time to value.

Because software development has some level of uncertainty, it is likely that a project will reach the end of its budget or time estimate before delivering on all the requirements expected. If you haven’t prioritized business value and risk, you may have to report, “We are really, really close. For just a little more investment or time, we can deliver something that meets your needs”. It is far easier report at the end of the time constraint or budget and say, “We have delivered on the most critical features and addressed the primary risks. At this point you can use the system we have delivered to address (most of) your business need. However, if you want to continue to invest, we can add additional capability.”

Many projects wait until the project is in danger to begin the trade-off analysis. Early work is done to a great deal of detail and late work is rushed through. The time to triage the requirements is at the beginning of a project. Then at each stage of elaboration, the detailed requirements should be further triaged. Requirements must reflect business value and risk – and the work should be prioritized based on these factors.

Making Agile Requirements Work-NO 5

Posted on November 30th, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  1 Comment »

I hear a lot about emergent outcomes, and progressive elaboration, and self organization on Agile projects. These are slippery slope concepts, and far too often are applied irresponsibly. Emergent outcomes don’t mean we have no idea what the business is paying for – they have a pretty clear idea of the problem they are investing to address. Progressive elaboration doesn’t mean the team will figure out what they are doing as they go along – it means they will gain clarity on mitigating risks and meeting the technical and customer experience aspects of how to solve the business problem as they move forward. Self organization doesn’t mean the team can work on whatever it wants – it means that the team collectively decides the best way to focus their efforts and skills on a specific effort.

The business is willing to make an investment, to solve a specific problem, within a specific timeframe. In the first four posts of this series we discussed that the way that requirements are captured should express the purpose and outcome, they should establish a shared language that communicates context and intent, is should be a stable view of the problem, and it should support progressive elaboration. In addition, Agile requirements include clarity on what "done" looks like. Agile requirements also include identifying the impediments to getting to "done".

Agile Requirements should be Testable

Not having a clear outcome does not make a development effort Agile, it makes it irresponsible. If we don’t communicate requirements in a way that we can ensure the requirement is accomplished then we are being unclear about the value proposition we are trying to achieve. By testable, we don’t mean the “how” of implementation, we mean understanding what is not available or performing adequately what will be different after the requirement is delivered. If the business can’t communicate to the developer how to make sure they know when they are done – the project will meander. Even with lots of customer involvement during development – it is likely that development will be less focused than it could be.

What does it mean to be testable? I have a client that had its development team develop a “data-warehouse” to provide management reports. The developers spent eight months defining all the data in the business, developed programs and processes to consolidate the data into a central repository, and started building reports against the data. Eight months later the manager’s biggest problem is that they don’t have the information the need to manage the business. How is this possible? The business wanted a data warehouse and they got one. They have been intimately involved in the data gathering process. They have been asking for reports through the system for months.

The problem is that no one stopped to understand how they would test the requirement. How would they know if the business need was met? The business need is met when the manager had the information needed to manage the business. When the requirement is communicated as a granular “how” – and there is no way to verify it has met the need of the business – the business is unlikely to get what they expect.

Making Agile Requirements Work-No 4

Posted on November 3rd, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  No Comments »

We have proposed that Agile Requirements must be built at a purpose and outcome level, must leverage shared language that communicates context and intent, and must be based on a stable view of the domain. But even with these in place requirements can still fail to support the way people solve problems and the way people learn. When we try to be to prescriptive and communicate too much detail initially it will reduce effectiveness – not improve agility.  Agile requirements must support progressive elaboration.

Don’t Support Progressive Elaboration

One of the faulty assumptions made in Requirements Elicitation is that we believe we can know up front exactly what we want. It is also faulty to believe that we should document requirements in too granular detail. In fact, neither of these is accurate. Requirements should support the concept of progressive elaboration. That is, they should be documented so that more specific detail unfolds during the course of the project. This addresses the flaw in both of assumptions. First, documenting what we know at a high level of detail allows us to establish a consistent context that we can communicate in more detail the more we learn. Getting to too much detail early can result in rework and inconsistency in communication.

Agile teams may break requirements into Themes, Epics, Stories, and then Tasks. This may be hierarchical, follow a story-map, or be connected in a mind-map.  Themes are be defined early on and directly connected to business value propositions. These are then progressively elaborated into Epics and Stories as needed to feed the team. As Stories move into a ready state for development they can be further broken down into tasks by the development team. This progressive elaboration allows the team to apply what it learns about the best way to deliver the project as the project unfolds. Critically, it also supports the way that people learn about the problem. Too much detail early on can be overwhelming and result in a disconnected or inconsistent understanding of the effort. Not enough detail later on results in a lack of shared understanding of the problem. Progressive elaboration supports effective communication, collaboration in solution finding, and the application of what the team learns as the project unfolds.

Understanding the Customer vs Customer Value

Posted on November 2nd, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  2 Comments »

The Gilb’s have started a series of posts against Agile. The first on is Wrong Focus.

“It is not about working software. It is not about your preferred working process. It is not about user stories. It is not only about your customer or user. It is all about delivering, to your set of Stakeholders, value improvements to them, to what they care about, what makes their world better, within agreeable, minimum or pre-determined costs. If that is not the main focus, if that is not clear to everyone on the team, you will eventually loose! If your methods are not focusing on delivering that value, as todays most popular Agile methods are not, they will fail to deliver, they will become last years fad.”

They claim Agile software development is flawed because it focuses on improving the process and environment of the team developing software. These improvements result in improved customer collaboration that ensures the team better understands what the customer wants. From my experience, the combination of improved environment, appropriately sized process, and customer collaboration results in mature agile teams doing a great job of delivering the projects and products. But I understand their point. There is a difference between understanding the customer and focusing on delivering customer value.

Wrong Focus

Whether the software development organization is building software for external clients or to enable the organization’s business processes, there are always more things that can validly be improved than there are resources to do the work. Not all of the improvements will result in the same return of business value to the overall organization. Some benefits are more valuable to the organization than others. If you don’t pick the one that is most valuable to the business it is not the right investment for the business. In any of these improvements, there is more improving that is valid than is necessary to achieve the benefit. If the team works on improvements that aren’t the focus of the effort, “while they are there”,  they are not focusing on business value. This delays delivery of the effort and is not the right investment for the business.

Nothing in the Agile Manifesto, nor most of the Agile methods, give the tools to pick the right improvements to focus on. They also create an environment where it is extremely likely to work on more then is the minimum necessary to achieve the targeted business benefit. In many organizations, close customer collaboration can lead to “gold-plating” of features. If you offer the customer whatever they want – they will ask for it.

Wrong Focus in Practice

I have a customer right now that is going to build some software to support their field employees. The business goal is to achieve a significant cost reduction in the field through improving quality and efficiency in the field. The developers are extremely interested in developing mobile applications, distributed collaboration, GPS interfaces, image capture and markup, mapping, barcode, and training training. They have started a new business to build this product with the hope of selling it outside the business in the future. The challenge here is how do they clearly identify those improvements in the field and in dispatching that will deliver the significant reduction in field expense. If they go and and talk to the dispatchers they might find 30 things that could be done better. All of these improvements would result in an improvement in work conditions or performance. But they may not be aligned with the current business focus. The same will happen in the field.

Just because it will improve satisfaction or make someone’s job easier doesn’t mean it will help with the current business focus. How do they align absolutely the minimum amount of technology to deliver on these improvements? Especially when their interests are in this bigger, more robust solution. Especially when this limiting of features is not in line with their future business objectives. Nothing in Agile addresses how to deal with this conflict.

Where’s the Answer

I address this in Feeding the Agile Beast. This is the domain of Business Analysis. As the Gilb’s point out, most Agile methods abstract this from the team. They focus on improving their processes and collaboration. In Scrum, Business Analysis is abstracted behind the Product Owner. In XP, it is abstracted behind the Onsite Customer. I don’t agree with the implication from the Gilb’s that this abstraction is a deficiency in Agile. It is just outside the scope. I also don’t agree with Agile teams that close collaboration with the customer is sufficient to ensure business value is achieved. This is not an OR conversation. This needs to be handled as an AND conversation. This is the next thing we need to learn – how to keep an Agile team laser focused on business value AND maintain the benefits of understanding the customer that comes with Agile software development.

Making Agile Requirements Work-No. 2

Posted on October 27th, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  3 Comments »

The BABOK® says the purpose of eliciting requirements is to identify and understand the stakeholders needs and concerns, and understand the environment in which they work. This goes beyond documenting stated or superficial desires, it involves ensuring that the stakeholders actual underlying needs are understood. This is all great, but it is not useful if the requirements are elicited and documented in a way that a shared understanding is generated. Just getting the requirements documented and signed off on doesn’t help create the solution.

Failure to Establish a Shared Understanding

The myriad of stakeholders involved in an effort all have different perspectives. Their language, context, and intent are based on their particular experience. When my wife asks me to take out the trash she really means, “Talk out the trash right now, from every room in the house, replace the bags, and pick up any dirty laundry you find in the rooms you are in”. I didn’t share this understanding when we first got married. I do now – but it was more expensive than it would have been to take the time to get clarity on her context and intent. When requirements are elicited without establishing a basis of shared understanding of language, context, and intent there is the high likelihood that the requirements will be misinterpreted. This is particularly true when requirements are passed from stakeholder to business analyst to developer to quality assurance. This lack of common understanding and context often obscures the rationale for the requirement. When people don’t understand what they are doing and why they are doing it the potential for missing the mark is very high.

Establish a common language that communicates context and intent. This takes some time up front – but it is less expensive than the rework and delay associated with misunderstanding. Focus on context and intent more than detailed documentation. Verify the understanding of requirements between various stakeholders – not just a single sign-off. Clarify why each requirement is important in business language everyone agrees upon and can understand. Taking a minute to get clarity from my wife on intent would have resulted in a faster time to the desired outcome.

Making Agile Requirements Work-No. 1

Posted on October 26th, 2009 by Dennis Stevens  |  No Comments »

The problem with many current methods of Elicit Requirements on software development projects is that they don’t add economic value to the solution effort. Many projects develop unrealistically detailed requirements in large batches up front. Due to the impossibility of accurately defining exactly what the effort requires they aren’t completely useful. In addition to resulting in churn and rework they require a high level of effort to maintain. In response to problems with Big Up-front Elicitation efforts some projects have resorted to “too little” requirement definition up front. This also results in expensive churn and a lack of project focus that delays the time to value. In both cases the transaction costs associated with producing and maintaining the documents offset any value they might bring.

The How Trap

The How Trap is a very human condition. If you see someone at the fax machine and ask them what they are doing, they will say “Sending a Fax”. That isn’t what they are doing though. That is “how” they are doing something – not what they are doing. The How Trap is very common. Ric Merrifield, in his book Re-Th!nk: A Business Manifesto for Cost Cutting and Innovation talks about Dick Fosbury and the Fosbury Flop. Dick Fosbury realized the How of the high jump was to go as high as possible and abandoned trying to perfect any of the existing techniques that involved jumping over the bar so you could land on your feet. His focus on the What of jumping as high as possible led him to jump over it backwards and land on his back. His gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics pointed out the wisdom of his approach. When requirements are elicited on a How-Trap basis assumptions are made that limit options that should be considered to accomplish the goal of the effort.

To avoid the how trap elicit requirements based on outcomes and purposes. Avoid getting trapped in How specific language. You can be pretty specific about the purpose or outcome without falling into non-productive detail. For example, the outcomes and purposes associated with Pay Employees doesn’t change much regardless of the implementation. People need to be paid a specific amount, there are specific tax requirements, and there are clear governance and compliance needs. These don’t change whether Pay Employees is outsourced, done manually, or automated internally.

Remember Fosbury’s goal was not to jump higher it was to clear the bar at its highest point. Sending a fax is never the requirement. It is something like Communicate Status or Confirm Order. This is a subtle distinction but frees up the team to apply their creativity to the How and will lead to significantly different outcomes.