Whose value is it anyway?

Value is relative

So, if Value is relative to each person or organisation and their situation, before we can start definining Value we have to find out who’s value is important for our project. Who are we doing this for?

The Dramatis Personae

We start every project by finding out the stakeholders we need to satisfy. This, like all other agile analysis activities, is an iterative process: we start off with an initial set of stakeholders and update our list when we discover more information. We need to find at least three types of stakeholder before we can start talking about value:

  • Client
  • Customer
  • User(s)

The Client

The first and most important stakeholder is the Client. The Client commissions or purchases the product we create. The Client is responsible for

  • Setting the goals: “I need these results…”. The success of our work will be judged against the fulfilling of the needs.
  • Setting the constraints and boundaries: “You can’t touch this…”, “You have to….”. The constraints and boundaries set non-negotiable acceptance criteria for any solution we might come up with.
  • Providing the team with resources: money, skills, hardware, software, data, information…
  • Defining the Business Values of the product in function of time. Value isn’t static, it changes with time. For example, a games that’s released in time for the Christmas holiday gift shopping, has a lot more value than one that’s delivered a few days later. A new version that’s available at a trade show is more valuable than one that’s delivered the day after.
  • Resolve issues, remove impediments and manage risks for these areas of responsibility.

At the end of the day (project), it’s the Client who’ll decide if this project or product is a success. They define value and decide whether it’s been delivered or not.

Some other names for this role are: Purchaser, Buyer, Sponsor or Executive sponsor.

The Customer

The Customer works for the Client to fill in the details and content that will allow us to achieve the given goals with the given constraints using the given resources. The Customer is responsible for

  • Setting intermediate goals which, when achieved, will let us achieve the Client’s goals. Achieving these intermediate goals will tell us if we’re on track to deliver the goals of the Client.
  • Defining the features to be delivered to implement the goals.
  • Defining the Business Value of features, within the context of the Business Value Model of the Client.
  • Defining the Acceptance Criteria of the features that allow us to unambiguously determine if the feature is done because it achives its goal.
  • Follow up the state of the work, verify that the resources are being applied well to achieve the desired goals.
  • Resolve issues, remove impediments and manage risks for these areas of responsibility.

Some other names for this role are: Onsite Customer, Product Owner or Product Manager.


I’m not too fond of the word “User”, but for now this word stands for those people who will use the product we’ll create or change. As soon as we’ve identified them, we describe them using their role, group, team or organisation name so that we’re rid of the ugly word user.

If we already have people using the product, we go and see them (“Genchi Genbutsu”) so that we understand what their context and needs are. If the product is new, we may have to invent personas (with the help of Product Management and/or User Experience) and imagine what their context and needs will be.

Discovering stakeholders with the Nine Boxes interview technique

The Nine Boxes is a simple (but very difficult) interviewing technique from the Solution Selling™ sales process. We ask questions about three topics:

  • What problems and opportunities does the organisation face?
  • Who is impacted by this situation? How are they impacted?
  • What would a future in which the problems and opportunities have been dealt with, look like? What changes for those impacted people?

The answers we get from the “Impact” topic give us a first list of stakeholders. The person managing all the impacted people is a first candidate for the Client role.

You can download the Nine Boxes game from the Agile Coach site. Try it, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Once you master this technique you can get a lot of useful information in a short time.

Discovering stakeholders by going to the Gemba

Interviewing gives us a lot of useful information, but we don’t believe everything we’re told. Going to the place of work (“Gemba”) and seeing the work being done allows us to verify what we’ve been told and discover a whole lot more useful information. You can try two simple observation techniques:

  • Stand in a circle: you draw a circle on the ground and stand in it, for at least an hour. Observe what’s happening. Note things that go wrong. Note causes of things going wrong. Note ideas for improvement.
  • Staple yourself to a work order: select a client request and follow it through the process to really experience what happens in a process (which might be very different from what you’ve been told should happen).

While you’re at the workplace, take the time to talk to the people doing the work.

That’s just the start!

We’ll discover more stakeholders as we go along. These three stakeholders (with at least one type of user) are the minimum to even start to talk about value. Yet, surprisingly many projects I encounter lack one or more of these stakeholders. Agile projects typically have the Customer role, but they have problems fulfilling their responsibilities because the two other stakeholders are unclear:

  • If it’s not clear who the users are, if we overlook some types of users or if we only pay lip service to the notion of customers (like on the “agile” project where for the past five years nobody in the team had actually seen a user using their product) selecting the right User Stories and defining their value (to prioritise) becomes difficult. Next time you have trouble setting priorities or selecting stories, ask who the users are and what their goals and needs are.
  • If it’s not clear who the Client is, we don’t have a clear view of the overall goals and needs. We don’t have priorities between different stakeholders’ goals. We don’t have a Business Value Model that tells us what the value of the product will be. Next time you have trouble defining the Business Value, ask who the client is. Who takes care of the responsibilities of the Client? The Client decides if your work is successful, so you’d better know who that person is and what they define as success.
  • If there’s more than one person in the Client role, your project will be troubled by endless fighting, shifting priorities and many changes. The Client is one person who has the authority and knowledge to take the necessary decisions. If there are arguments about value and priority, ask who will deal with this risk.
  • If the appointed Client doesn’t have the authority and control over the whole area you’re working on for this product, you’ll be mired down in endless debates and requests with those who have the authority. Either reduce the scope to the span of control of your Client or find a Client with a larger span of control.

Whenever I look at a project, these are the first three questions I ask:

  • Who is the Client?
  • Who is the Customer
  • Who will use what the project makes?

A large number of project problems and project failures are caused by not having an answer to one of  these three questions.

When we have the answer to these questions we can start to ask questions about value.

Note: Dealing with constraints and boundaries

I always find constraints and boundaries worth time investigating in depth

  • Constraints that mandate certain features often lead to complaints from the team as they have to implement “zero value” features. These kinds of features are “Table Stakes” or “Must Be” in the Kano Model: the whole product has no value unless those features are there. For example: in a regulated industry, all the work and deliverables to pass a required audit may not seem to have a value, but they are the price to pay to be in that market. We can include these kinds of features in two ways: additional stories (for example: “TO assess what needs to be tested AS A certifying authority I NEED a list of changes in the release with their architectural impact“) or as Acceptance Criteria that apply to all User Stories (for example: “Is this User Story’s design documented in the architectural impact document?” ). How do we prioritize these stories? Simply, they get no business value but get marked as Table Stakes. When planning, these go to the top of the priority list.
  • Constraints that mandate certain technologies to be used may put undue limits on our creativity, but can make good sense: if the product is to be maintained by the Client’s organisation it should use technologies with which the Client’s people are familiar.
  • Being able to break through constraints or boundaries can create an innovative and unique product. Systems Thinking and Conflict Resolution techniques can be very helpful here. Always question constraints, boundaries and the assumptions behind them!