How do you estimate the Business Value of User Stories? You don’t.

Estimating Business Value

At XP Days London I attended an Open Space session on “Estimating Business Value”. Ironically, it was hard to hear the other people in the working group because of the noise generated by the working group next to us discussing “Agile isn’t solving our customers problems because they’re not here“. Yup, we were discussing business value with not a customer in sight or any idea on how we could involve them in the discussion.

The topic of the session was

How do we estimate the Business Value of User Stories?

We didn’t get much result from the discussion. There’s no writeup on the open space wiki. I don’ t know if the organiser of the session got anything out of the session. I didn’t.

First of all, the session never defined what “Business Value” is. That’s the topic of a later blog post.

Secondly, I don’t think you can get a good answer to that question because it’s the wrong question.

Why is this the wrong question?

Because it presupposes that we first write User Stories and then estimate their value.

If we don’t know the value of the stories, we risk writing a lot of low (or zero) value stories. And many teams do. We write lots of User Stories in the hope of discovering the high value ones. We end up with a lot of stories that then have to be prioritised, valued, estimated and managed. Portia taught me a colourful description of this result: a Vomit of User Stories.

What are the consequences of a Vomit of User Stories?

We spend a lot of time on them:

  • user story telling meetings
  • user story cost estimation meetings
  • user story value estimation meetings (that’s the meeting where we force our product owner to put a value number on the user story)
  • user story planning meetings

Just to decide what gets done in the next iteration.

If we estimate and track tasks, not stories, we need to add

  • task breakdown meetings
  • task estimation meetings instead of story estimation meetings

Add to that

  • an iteration retrospective
  • a mid-iteration review
  • a show and tell meeting
  • daily standup meetings

Meanwhile, there’s “backlog grooming” going on. It’s a wonder anything gets done in an iteration!

Indeed, I’ve heard many managers and developers of companies that have started with Agile complain about the many meetings. They feel that they’re not getting much done.

So, what’s the correct question then?

How do we find the User Stories that deliver the Business Values?

That presupposes a different process: one where we first define what Business Values we intend to achieve and then generate those User Stories that contribute to the Business Values.

That should be a no-brainer, right?

  • We first decide what values (or benefits) we want to achieve before lauching a project or product
  • Then we find and improve the business processes that deliver that value
  • Then we find and improve the supporting business processes that make the value-delivering processes possible
  • When the team needs user stories, we take the highest value processes and break them down into user stories at the right level of granularity for the team’s needs. The team pulls the stories, so we only generate a minimal set of user stories.

The User Stories that implement those business processes clearly contribute to the business values, otherwise we wouldn’t even have considered them.

What’s the value of an iteration?

We keep talking about value and business value, but for our customers there’s no value delivered by iterations. They see real value when the product (and that’s not just software, despite “Working software over comprehensive documentation”!) gets released into the hands of users. Iterations (more correctly: timeboxes) are a useful project management tool, no more.

What’s the business value of a story?

I don’t think it matters much.

Why do you want to know the business value of a user story?

  • It’s no longer needed to eliminate zero or low value user stories, because we don’t create or consider them at all.
  • Another use could be to prioritise user stories by business value in a release or timebox. If we’ve already prioritised the business values and the processes that deliver them, we need to make sure the processes are implemented completely. So, I’d schedule user stories in such a way as to finish the high value processes as soon as possible and have as few processes in progress as possible. Other considerations, like dependencies, constraints, risks and real options, will weigh much more heavily when scheduling.

Why else would you want to know the business value of a user story?

I see no need to put a Business Value number on User Stories.

In the end, the customer doesn’t care about the allocation of user stories to timeboxes. They care that the selected business values are delivered in the release.

Asking the right question

Before we can find the right User Stories, we first need to ask our customers

What are the business values, the benefits, you need to achieve with this project or product? And how will you know you got them?

So, instead of inviting your customers to XP Days, why don’t you go to them and ask some questions? Asking questions is simple, but not easy.

Do you know what values your work is going to deliver? Do you know how your work delivers those values? If not, why are you doing this project? Why are you being paid?


‘Or’ considered harmful

Asking questions isn’t as easy as it seems

You’d think that asking questions is easy. Most of us have been doing it since we’re small children. Why is it that most people (me included) are so bad at it?

Nowadays, we start many of our conference sessions and training courses with an interviewing exercise. The exercise is very simple:

  • Participants work in triads and rotate through the three roles
    • Interviewer asks questions
    • Interviewee answers questions
    • Observer notes what is being done and said. The observer is also the referee who checks that the other two players follow the role.
  • We set a topic that is known by the interviewee and not known by the interviewer. For example, the current or previous project of the interviewee. That actually makes the game easier. It’s harder to play the game if you know the interviewee or what they’re talking about.
  • During a short timebox (a few minutes), the interviewer asks questions. Only three types of questions are allowed:
    • Open questions allow the interviewee to tell their story. Questions like “What does your company do?”, “What project are you working on?” or “What does your product do?” are good opening open questions. The best open question is “Can you give me an example?”
    • Control questions let the interviewee fill in the facts of the story. Questions like “How many people work on the project?”, “How long is the project expected to run?” or “Where do you work?” allow the interviewer to get to the data behind the story.
    • Confirmation questions let the interviewer check that they understood the interviewee. “If I’ve understood correctly, <restate what you heard in your own words>. Am I right?”. If you get a “Yes” answer, you can go on to the next part of the interview. If you get a “No” answer, you can ask the logical next Open question: “Can you tell me what I missed?”

It’s a fun game. You can download the instructions and a cheat sheet from the Agile Coach site. The game is based on the “Nine Boxes” technique from Solution Selling.

It’s too hard!

The feedback from the players and our observations show one thing: this is too hard! Interviewers have trouble following the rules and observers don’t have the courage to interrupt the interviewer when they don’t follow the rules.

In those few cases where we have someone who can actually ask questions in this format, the interviewees always remark how they feel that the interviewer really understood them. Usually, the interviewee gets some new insights.

It is hard, but it’s worth it.

How not to ask questions (a non-exhaustive list)

  • Closed questions push the interviewee in a corner where they can only answer Yes or No. It’s really hard to get useful information using only boolean answers. Typical conversations go like “Is it X? No. Is it Y? No. Is it Z? No!!!” If you like to fish, go to a lake.
  • Leading questions (or even better, Entrapment questions) lead the interviewee to give the answer the interviewer wants to get. “When have you stopped beating your wife?” is a classic example.
  • Discourses disguised as questions allow the interviewer to speech on their favourite subject. Sometimes they even add a closed question at the end. By then nobody knows what the question is about. The goal is to let the interviewer talk more than the interviewee. I don’t know why, but I associate this type of question with university professors or inhouse gurus.
  • Rethorical questions don’t really expect an answer, they have a point to make. “Are you going out wearing that?”. “Well… Maybe I’d better not. What do you recommend?”

My favourite most hated type of question (and one I use and hear too often) is the Pretend Open question. The typical form is like this: “Is it X or Y (and here the interviewer remembers they should ask open questions) OR…?” You can just hear the trailing dots. The question is long, unclear and weak. Advanced users will introduce many OR options, so as to maximize their airtime.

Help me get better

If you hear me ask any question that doesn’t fit the Open/Control/Confirm format, please correct me.

So, what did you think of this blog entry? Was it useful or just a reminder of something you already do or something you can’t use or….? Are you getting annoyed yet? Oops!

And it gets harder

Another observation from the game: hearing and seeing is also very hard. When we ask the observers to tell us what they heard and saw, we ask them to only answer with “I saw…” or “I heard…”. Most observers answer with “I think…” or “I feel…”.

When we teach people to interview and observe they “rediscover the lessons they learned as children but have since forgotten“. Maybe we should hire children as business analysts and consultants. For them all of this is natural.