An Idea in An Agile World

All new products and new product features start with an idea. This idea becomes the first user story, user story #1, for the product. User story #1 begins a journey that could end with either happy customers and happy business stakeholders or end up in the bucket of disused ideas. So what happens to user story #1 and what do you do with this new idea?

You can find lots of articles on breaking down user stories. You can also find articles on how to write good user stories but you usually don’t see too many articles on how the first user story is used to develop a business case. What follows are some thoughts and insights on how to take user story #1 and developing it for greater success.

User story #1

User story #1 is the idea. It’s an idea to achieve business goals, an idea to solve customer problems, and an idea to create or change a product. We’re all familiar with user stories written with an eye toward solving a customer problem through product updates. User story #1 is different as it’s not so much about solving a customer problem as it is a ‘thought’ experiment to discover what customer problems we can solve. So the question is, how should we go about validating the idea?


When the new product idea is first presented as a means to achieve a business goal, there will be interest but it’s unlikely the business is going to throw monies your way, at least not at first. The business needs more than just the idea, the business needs data to back-up and justify the idea. This translates to meaning the idea is put through the discipline of Ideation or Envisioning.

The idea is the highest level user story for the product but the picture is incomplete and outcomes uncertain. However, there’s usually enough to the idea to begin analysis and experimentation. The analysis often results in a series of metrics and measures collected during envisioning. These are often measured on a some scale that best serves your business. For example, aligning to company strategy might be scored 0=no alignment, to 5=full alignment. Costs might be 0=<$10,000 to 5=>$450,000. Below are some metrics you might be familiar with.

  • Alignment with the company’s strategy,
  • Moves the product team towards achieving a business goal,
  • Is technically feasible,
  • Product innovation category (new, adjacent, or sustaining),
  • Cost associated with it (implementation is usually the biggest component),
  • Predictable business outcome if implemented (revenue, customers, users, …),
  • The business risk of implementing/not implementing is calculated,
  • The competitive advantage, and
  • The market breadth (new, adjacent, or sustaining).

To do the above takes time and you might look at the list and think, “that doesn’t look too agile to me”. Today’s reality in the digital age is all these items need to be completed in the morning so the development teams can implement and deploy by late afternoon. For most of us this isn’t exactly true, yet. But time is a pressing consideration and being quick is important. What we need to find is a way to do business so we have both enough knowledge to start and we have a clear idea of what further information we’ll need. The key bit of knowledge we need to have up front is that the idea aligns with the business’s strategy and goals.

Big ideas need to align with business strategy & goals

Before the idea is broken down, or before any real effort is made, the idea should be validated against the business strategy and goals. You might be lucky and the business strategy is developed in such a way that the product manager can have their ideas incorporated into the strategy from the start. When the business defines what their goals are, they develop a strategy to achieve those goals.

The three elements of good strategy (source: Richard P. Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy)

  1. Diagnosis: “A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.”
  2. Guiding Policy: “A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.”
  3. Coherent Actions: “A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.”

Working backwards on this list, new product ideas describe the actions needed to deal with the challenges (goals) found during the diagnostics. In this way, new product ideas become an integral part of the company’s overall strategy.

If the product manager can align their ideas with the business, then the remaining items of envisioning can happen relatively quickly. It’s very likely that for most ideas, the effort to define feasibility and cost can occur within an agile team’s iteration. This is a tremendous way to cut the time from idea to completing envisioning. It also provides for giving the customers a chance to evaluate the idea in a practical sense: A/B tests, user testing, or customer interviews. This technique of learning is often used in the Startup world as Build-Measure-Learn cycle.

The product manager will likely obtain full approval for any opportunity that delivers overwhelming value relative to its cost. Kenneth Rubin in his book, “Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process“, suggests that if there’s any discussion over tiny differences in cost or value then it clearly doesn’t deliver ‘overwhelming’ value and the idea should be dropped.

The easiest and best way to determine value is by getting the idea in front of your customers and users and measuring their response.

Using the development team for envisioning

When speed is essential to capitalize on an event or competitive opportunity, get something out in front of the users today rather than waiting until you’re sure. The trick will be to do only enough to answer questions and reduce risks without over committing the team or business. Keep in mind that you and the business haven’t validated the idea yet so there is a risk. If you’re doing Agile then this will fairly straight forward: use build-measure-learn techniques to understand the value of your idea with customers and users.

The product manager works with the product owner, team leads, architects, or full development team to break down user story #1 (the idea) into smaller user stories. These are the fragments needed to showcase the new product or feature idea. These particular stories are not necessarily work to build a product but will often be part of a prototype or demo system to gather information and feedback. Part of the envisioning process is to validate the idea, confirming its potential, with customers and users. To do this, a demo or prototype to showcase new features to potential customers and users can be an enormous asset without spending too much money in the process.

If the product manager has the luxury of dedicated team at their disposal that’s great! However, a new product idea may not as yet have a team but only a handful of senior people to help bring a new idea to life. Assuming there is a team, one approach is to get a team to include some research work along with their normal complement of product work. This is handled as spikes, technical or business exploration, added to the sprint if doing scrum. (If the agile teams are Kanban then there’s less of a concern with disruption and immediate priorities can take precedence.) If there’s a time critical component to the idea and waiting isn’t an option, then cancelling a sprint and pivoting to take on higher value work is an option but not always a good idea. Besides, if doing scrum there’s already a mechanism in place to do research, prototypes, and mock-ups: the backlog refinement sessions.

Using the development team during envisioning helps the product manager answer some important business questions including these 2 metrics from above:

  • technically feasibility-team can better answer this after developing a prototype,
  • implementation costs-implementation is usually the main influence on costs and the team can make a more accurate estimate.

By using the feedback and learnings from the demo and prototype, the product manager can better determine the viability of the idea. Using A/B tests, user testing, or customer interviews, the product manager can:

  • better estimate the business outcome if implemented (revenue, customers, users, …),
  • better assess the business risk of implementing/not implementing the idea,
  • better assess the effect on competition, and
  • better understand the market breadth.

Getting the development team involved with the idea early on will benefit the product manager. This early involvement moves the team from being a partner with the product management into being full members of the business team, bringing along their unique skills and insights into the envisioning process.

Two key outcomes having the development team in on envisioning

One big advantage is the development team is better positioned to undertake the new work if the business decides to proceed. The development team also has more ‘skin in the game’ through early involvement.

Another big advantage is the product manager can determine sooner whether to pursue the idea further. Because the development team has created prototypes or demos for customers, the product manager is better able to collect critical information for the business case. If it turns out there is no profitable business case, the product manager has spent relatively little money to learn a lot. The agile principle of maximizing the amount of work not done is an important one and finding out early to stop is better than running out the budget on a hunch that doesn’t pay off.

In a waterfall environment?

If you’re doing a waterfall type methodology then it’s a given that all envisioning and requirements are defined upfront. This is not bad if there’s little to no uncertainty. However, the early involvement by the full development team to pursue the idea using prototypes is still valid. They’ll not only be putting more ‘skin in the game’ but they’ll improve the accuracy of the estimates and potentially uncover more unknowns.


To increase your chances of success, get the development team involved during envisioning. They can help the business best if they’re a full member of the business team and not just a partner. Use the full development team to validate user story #1. This includes validating customer problems, potential solutions, development costs, and business value.


Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Communications

I recently met a group of people having a hard time ‘doing’ agile. They understand agile but others in the business chose not to participate. These were managers and business leaders. Although the group’s first reaction is to ‘sell’ agile I gave them an alternative of doing things to add value both for the business and for customers without a sales pitch. What if the team communicated a better way of doing work that created more success? Wouldn’t the business embrace better ways of being successful?

Let’s start by establishing that A) No one goes to work hoping to fail and B) Business leaders and managers often don’t see how changing themselves can improve the team’s outcomes.

Although people don’t want to fail, we can’t assume they’ll do their utmost to be successful. Being successful takes effort but this is something that can be leveraged for your advantage. You’re not going to push agile but rather advocate a means to be more successful. Your communications with the team and business leaders are about being successful and about ways to be more successful.

When you communicate with managers and senior stakeholders in the business, they’ll most often listen to you but more importantly, you’ll need to listen to them. These people want something from the teams and your best approach is to understand their real needs and not just their ‘wants’. Although the business usually measures output as a key indicator, it’s been my experience they need reassurance that progress is being made, promised business value is being delivered, and the team is meeting their delivery commitments. Often times however, management are unaware of what they need to do to help the teams be more successful and it is this particular behavior that teams need to communicate.

Simply put, these communications have three parts: 1) teams to understand the needs of the business and what makes the business successful, 2) business leaders need to understand their role in helping teams (and themselves) be successful, and 3) the teams need to find the means to meet the business’s expectation and let the business know the ‘actuals’. Sounds easy, yes?

Inception workshop planning

The best way I’ve seen to get everyone started on the same page and establishing desired communication patterns is using an Inception Workshop. You can use the inception workshop to fully communicate intentions, expectations, and create an initial delivery plan. Although an inception workshop can have many topics and areas of exploration, I would focus particularly hard on the following topics:

  1. Why we are here – the reason for this activity and our outcomes for a successful workshop
  2. Why is this important – the business goals and objectives we want to satisfy by means of solving customer problems
  3. Product Vision – developing a shared product vision that inspires everyone to achieve the business goals using the product
  4. Stakeholders Who / do – the key stakeholders both internal and external and the actions required for a successful project
  5. Empathy Mapping – a deep dive into the users, customers, or stakeholders
  6. Journey Mapping – how users, customers, or stakeholders will use our product or service (
  7. Trade off sliders – the team’s upfront assessment of what’s important and what will or will not be compromised to achieve total success
  8. Epics / Story Cards / Relative order – initial story mapping to discover or confirm the highest priority requirements/user stories
  9. Estimates / Releases – continuing with story mapping to develop a release plan. The team(s) commit to this release plan acknowledging that some information might be incomplete or unknown.

These nine steps are about reaching a common understanding of who benefits from the project and what problems need to be solved to achieve our business goals. However, more important than these two outcomes is the openness and transparency of the communications between the business and team(s). Planning your business’s next project or endeavor using an inception workshop sets the precedent of business teams and creative teams working together as one in an open communicative environment. Now the real trick is to somehow institutionalize this new-found communication pattern into the organization.

Company culture

I’ve worked in organizations where managers were expected to make decisions and be seen as leading their teams. The reality is this can be changed but it does require a lot of openness and introspection (see The Journey to Servant Leadership as an example).  To keep the open and collaborative feelings discovered during the inception workshop going, the senior business managers and middle managers might need to change the way they work. The key to business success is always knowing where you’re at. This is what needs to be continually communicated upwards, from the teams to the business managers and stakeholders. This part is generally easier to achieve than getting business managers and stakeholders to communicate their current situation and results back to the teams. Why should this be difficult?

One of the reasons a company’s culture is not opening itself up to change is the breakdown in communications. This is evidenced in high level managers aggressively stating how things cannot change and giving ‘reasons’ why this is so. Often when this happens, those wishing for change back down and accept the status quo. The following illustrates people taking positions on an issue rather than communicating.

  • Team lead to Business Manager: Can you tell me how the business is doing with our latest delivery?
  • Business Manager to Team lead: Customers seemed to be happy with the new features.
  • Team lead: Can I get their specific comments and the overall NPS?
  • Business Manager: No, sorry. That’s confidential information.

With that little dialog it’s easy to see how the company has limited access to information. The painful reality is the teams must be completely transparent to the business but the business often has policies that limit its transparency back to the teams. This is where the culture shift needs to occur. If the team is to feel fully engaged with the business, the business must fully engage with the team.

One way to overcome these obstacles is to change the dialog. The dialog above has the team lead ‘telling’ the manager what they need to do. The manager responds with a shallow summary but hides behind policy when it comes to any meaningful depth. The above dialog is just that: a dialog. It doesn’t fall into the collaborative conversation category because clearly there is no collaborative effort made by either party. Culture trumps communication.

A different approach would be for the team lead to consider the business value of their request. For example, take a look at this illustration from Michael Sahota of

What the illustration shows is a variance of culture between the team solving problems and the business people running the company. It is hard to change either of these cultures so don’t try. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, the best way forward is to work within the business’s culture and make a compelling business case for opening a previous inaccessible communication path. Here’s how that communication might go down:

  • Team lead: We’ve been getting some customer feedback at our reviews but we are having some difficulty mapping our value delivered with the actual progress in achieving two business goals: increasing NPS and increasing customer referrals. If we can get better and more specific insight on what customers are saying and doing, we can make sure we’re working those requirements that can deliver the most business value sooner.
  • Business Manager: How can you use this customer information to achieve our business goals sooner?
  • Team lead: Once we can get their specific comments and the changed NPS, we can analyse what is motivating customers to use our product. Once we have that we can groom our stories to get those stories which enhance features customers are talking about to the top of the backlog.
  • Business Manager: Ok. It’s confidential information, I can’t just give it to you but I tell you what, let’s get all the team leads together and we can review the raw data. Will that help?
  • Team lead: Absolutely. I’ll get the team leads together and we can meet here in your office at say, 2:00 pm?
  • Business Manager: 2:00 pm is good. It should take about an hour and if we need more time we can find it later.
  • Team lead: Great! see you at 2 and thanks a lot.
  • Business Manager: You’re welcome. See you all at 2.

The difference with our second example compared to the first is the second is clearly a collaborative conversation and one that resulted in potentially creating more business value sooner. The team lead has changed the conversation from one that is a request from the manager to one that is offering to serve the manager.


Communications between the business and the team needs to be collaborative and mutual. Using an inception workshop is a great way to start any project or adventure with an open, collaborative setting.

It’s also important to understand that the cultural bubble around the teams and the organizational culture are probably different. Any ongoing communication needs to account for this. When talking across cultural lines, use language and terms that are meaningful in the ‘other’ culture. In our team lead example above, the team lead used the language of better achieving business goals to break down communication barriers.

Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Transparency

In the last two posts, ‘Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Requirements‘, and ‘Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Team‘, I talked about how to be more Agile in an environment where the business is strictly Waterfall. I’d like to continue this theme with some ideas and practices to make the teams more ‘transparent’.

Inspect, Adapt, & Transparency

Most will recognize Inspect, Adapt, & Transparency as the three pillars of Scrum but they’re ideas that even the most Waterfall of businesses can use and take advantage of. These three pillars are the core to continuous improvement, building what customers need to solve their problems, and helping bring the greatest valued work to the forefront. I’ll focus on transparency as I believe once you have transparency, inspection and adaptation will follow naturally.

Perhaps the big difference between Agile Vs traditional project management is how these three items are acted upon. When I was doing big Waterfall projects our alleged transparency came from the project’s communication plan. This communication plan defined the reports the project team was responsible for generating. At or near the end of the project, we wrote project closure reports which often included lessons learned. While writing the closure report, we were being formally transparent but only after everything was done. The real problem with the closure report was the timeliness of it. Because this is traditionally done at the end of the project, nothing learned here can help the just completed project. We also suffered from fading memories. We remembered the specific events but often needed to speculate and debate over the causes. Interestingly, we also seemed to forget these lessons for the next project or determine the next project is different enough so the lessons weren’t considered applicable. I’m not suggesting nothing was learned but any learnings carried forward tended to be the exception.

The result is some learning is done but the changes haven’t been trialed or proven to be effective in solving whatever the problem was. To improve requires openness and transparency so you can inspect what has happened and adapt to new and better ways throughout the project not just at the end. To maximize the value of improving, the project team needs to be continuously inspecting outcomes and results including any new ways of doing things. Building in transparency from the start will help.


Transparency is arguably the first step for improvement. Nothing will help a business improve better than seeing undeniable evidence that some work practices, processes, and communications are less than optimal or just plain bad. In the Waterfall environment, the project plan includes what practices and processes the teams will use and the order they’ll use them. Most project plans also have a communication section where and how the various project statuses and metrics are reported. However, it’s only an illusion that transparency exists by executing a communications plan. The reason is, communication plans dictate specific content and intervals, usually within categorizes like any of the following:

  • Current project status
  • Current risk assessment
  • Resourcing status
  • Requirements management status
  • Stakeholder management status
  • Change management status

This doesn’t provide any insights or linkages to bigger or widespread problems. There’s also the problem that the reporting is done by the project manager. This can lead to information being filtered and potentially skewed due to conflict of interest. Project managers are generally held accountable for the project plan which means they’re accountable for perceived progress or the perceived lack  of progress. And finally, after a while, the project manager is most often simple ticking the box on his or her reporting requirements.

Daily standup & transparency

Scrum Trainer Charles Bradley wrote in his article, “The Tao of Scrum – Transparency“, “the best transparency leads to the best collaboration loops”. To maximize the value of collaborative feedback loops requires transparency and to me, transparency implies anyone can quickly gauge what’s happening in a project with a minimum of effort. Although you might be stuck with an old-fashioned communication plan, there’s an easy ceremony you can implement with your Waterfall team that gives extra clarity to what’s happening on the project: a daily standup. Each day the team talks about how their plans for the previous 24 hours went and what their plans are for the next 24 hours. It also provides an opportunity for others with their own unique perspectives to make observations and comment.

In my Waterfall past, as the project was approaching the final stages of test, we had all the project managers, line managers, and the program office people sit together daily to talk about specific tasks the teams were doing and when we thought they’d be done. Although this worked quite well for the management team, the nuance of individual planning was lost. Had there been a team standup, the confidence or uncertainty was more likely to come through. As it was, what was reported to management was an interpretation of plans and status.

In a Waterfall environment, the full project team might be large since the team is built from specialist who usually don’t take on tasks outside their specialty. This can mean the daily standup is large if everyone goes so careful monitoring is essential. The daily standup must remain valuable and true planning must occur otherwise there’s no point to it. In Agile, one valuable component of the daily standup is the collaborative nature of getting the most important work done first. In Waterfall, the project manager and product manager might need to be a little flexible in their detailed project plans to allow the collaborative nature of the implementation team to emerge. Better still is for the project plan be aligned with getting functionality done in order of importance rather than based on components and skills of the team.

Plans & transparency

Another aspect of transparency will be the visibility of the plans. If the project is using MS Project or Jira for Agile teams, it is a huge mistake to think this by itself constitutes transparency. Both these tools track progress when properly maintained but in both cases, people often don’t take the extra steps necessary to open a file or log on to Jira or even learn how to use the tool. The real problem isn’t progress wasn’t tracked, it is, but the real problem is the difficulty of getting to this tracking data and properly interpreting it. These tools have their advantages but ease of use is not always one of them. It’s not that these managers and program office people are lazy but rather their time’s at a premium. Visualizing the project and sprint status on a wall is easy. Bits of sticky paper with notes, in columns is easy. I have used a big wall as a Gantt chart or User Story board to great success. It really doesn’t matter if you’re doing Waterfall or Agile, the advantages of this high visibility is the same: huge.

If your team and stakeholders are global then it’s a wise idea to set up a camera on the planning board. I had used a camera while we did standups to allow global stakeholders to see & hear what was going on. I had a second camera on our ‘story board’ 24/7. This was intended to add more transparency and to give our global stakeholders a bigger slice of the picture, allowing for more feedback and collaboration.

Transparency is a conscious effort

Agile isn’t immune to poor transparency and communications. As Scrum Master, I’ve been cornered by the product owner/manager and asked what the ‘real’ state of progress was in the sprint. Two things needed to happen: the product owner needed to attend the daily standup and the team (with some advice from the Scrum Master) needed to better present state sprint progress. In Waterfall, the project manager has their hands full too. While Agile implies the implementation team is involved and responsible for managing expectations and communicating value completed, Waterfall usually relies on the project manager to do these. It’s up to the project manager to move beyond the project plan and establish a collaborative atmosphere where visibility and transparency become natural within the project team.

Transparency can be scary as it will expose people, their work practices, and their outcomes to all. It’s not the natural state for developers who learned their craft in a Waterfall environment. The first time I had transformed a Waterfall team into a Scrum team, one of the team members told me that they were completely stressed out by the high visibility of their work. In his case, a technical decision had proved wrong in a most open sort of way. In the past, management would probably not know that a technical glitch had happened but Agile made it visible. In hindsight, the team member realized the focus was to identify and correct a technical decision quickly and not to allocate blame or ridicule, (he was unconvinced of this in the first days). Transparency became a tool to do better and improve but not without some pain on the journey. Making previously hidden work habits visible will be stressful for some but this can be countered by avoiding the culture of blame and ridicule.


By using transparency as an aid to see what’s working well and what can be improved, the opportunities for improvement are more likely to be seen. Transparency has two key accomplices: daily standups and the wall project planner. Both these can be used in Waterfall environments without too much effort beyond simply doing it. Having the implementation team being transparent and talking directly to their plans each day is a key element of Inspection & Adaptation. This daily transparency reduces the risk of going off on a tangent as illustrated in the earlier story about an unsuccessful technical decision.

Transparency also extends beyond traditional tracking tools. Although these tools help track and document progress, it requires both effort and training to use these to their full potential. Training all stakeholders and customers with these tools is hard and may be impractical. Using a simple system of sticky notes and a big wall can convey the same information in a visual way that transcends most communication roadblocks. If there’s no wall, then use a big whiteboard. No whiteboard, then use the windows. You can even put a camera in front to broadcast the planning board across the internet if necessary.