One of the most common problems with existing well-established agile teams is that they have issues delivering value-added user stories. The team is cross-functional, has established velocity, understands roles, process and cadences. But when is comes to demonstrating the work at the end of the sprint or program increment, the value behind what they develop falls short to the eyes of business owner, product manager or different stakeholders.

Most agile change agents or coaches have seen this scenario before and we all know it is neither the team nor the agile processes. It comes down to alignment and understanding of the work being committed during a sprint or program increment. The work the team has committed to in a sprint must have alignment to the enterprise, organizational or program goals. The team, leadership and stakeholders must all be aligned on the objective of the work and how that work will provide value back to the organization. In coordination with that, there must be a common understanding of the work being committed to by all parties involved. Lack of understanding leads to development of work that does not align to the value or goals we are trying to archive.

As a result of a lack of alignment and understanding there are four core problems that arise at the team level,

  1. Teams are delivering user stories which add no value to the enterprise or organization
  2. Teams are committing to user stories that are complex and large which result in an inability to deliver
  3. Team does not understand what they are trying to achieve with the user story
  4. Completed user stories are not demonstrable

As a result of seeing these common problems too often in my agile coaching experience, I have established the ai???Rubix Cube to Value Added User Storiesai???. This blog reviews the foundation, guiding principles and process which make this approach effective in ensuring that an agile team produces valuable user stories.

Foundation to Rubix Cube ai??i?? Alignment and Understanding

The Rubix Cube is a perfect symbol to help demonstrate how user stories must be aligned and understood in order to ensure successful delivery of valuable user stories. Without the understanding and alignment of the work from the end users to the team, the team is being set up for failure.

As a result, we have set up a three-tier scope decomposition which originates from the Scale Agile FrameworkTM ai??i?? a decomposition of work from Strategic Themes, Epic, Features and User stories. This framework is ideal for large scaled enterprises and can be scaled up or down, as needed, to fit any size organization. But a three-tiered system is best to illustrate the value alignment through the decomposition of work back to strategic themes and down to user stories. The key to scaling up or down this approach is to ensure that there is alignment from the top to the bottom of the framework, regardless of number of tiers.

To ensure alignment across our Rubix Cube, we should consider three key characteristics of each piece of scope that is critical to ensure we have a complete understanding of the work.

  • Details ai??i?? Clear description of the ai???whatai??? and ai??? Known Howai??i??sai??? of the piece of work. Identification of In Scope, Out of Scope, assumptions and Nonai??i??Functional Requirements help to articulate the work.
  • Benefits ai??i?? Identify the value behind the work based on three categories,
    • People – Who is benefiting from achieving this work and why?
    • Process – What is the benefit behind the process being enhanced?
    • Capability – What is the benefit behind the business or technical capability being enhanced?
  • Validation – Explanation of how the team, product owner, and other stakeholders will know that the work is complete. Details here can lead to acceptance criteria, Test Cases, etc.

Classification of the work into these categories becomes an effective and efficient way to get alignment and understanding of the work across all stakeholders.

This seems complex to complete and almost as painful as actually completing a rubix cube! Ai??Ensuring there is full alignment and understanding of work across multiple incentives and teams is very difficult. This is why, in the days of waterfall, teams created 709 pages of requirements that would take four months to complete and required signed off by every person possible and baselined so that we ensure alignment and understand of this perfect rubix cube. Ai??But today we canai??i??t do that because market needs change too often and we canai??i??t get the full rubix cube correct as it take too long to complete and the colors keep changing. The question is, what if we just want one side of the rubix cube to be perfect.Ai?? What can we do to line up the colors for one side?

Rubix Cube

We are about to move into the principles and processes which will lead us to value-based user stories. Remember that we are not trying to figure out the whole rubix cube, which is impossible in todayai??i??s world. The principles and processes below will help to outline how we constantly iterate, collaborate and refine the work so that we can get alignment and understanding for one side of the rubix cube long enough for the team to commit and deliver value.

Guiding Principles to Value Added User Stories

Knowing that we have a structure and foundation to document the work, we needed to establish some guiding principles to drive the alignment and understanding of the work. The guiding principles are all to drive a mindset of continuous iterations of scope decomposition to drive quicker value back to the organization. Ai??

  • Align ai??i?? Align all work to benefits. The core of this entire approach is alignment to value. The value derives from the benefits the scope is trying to achieve. Value should be identified at the highest level of scope decomposition and then aligned to the lowest leel. Establishing new or decomposition of value at lower levels Align Puzzle Piecesof refinement can lead to misalignment of work and non value added user stories. If, through refinement, new value is identified, it must relate back to an Epic (or highest level of scope decomposition). This could lead to adding it to or establishing a new Epic, which is specific to achieving that piece of value.Ai?? Doing this will minimize the risk of gold plating and keep the work aligned to value as it was intended.
  • Ensure ai??i?? Validate that the work can be achieved by ensuring there is an understanding of the work Alignment to valueacross all stakeholders. Ensure theyAi??understand the value that will be achieved after the work is complete. This is how the value is realized. In the process, we identify value by the value to people, process and capability.Ai??Validation of that value occurs in the form of people, processes and capability to ensure the value was achieved. Doing this at every level of the scope decomposition ensures that work stays aligned to the value achieved.

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  • Demo– Ensure pieces of work are demonstrated as minimal viable product. Sprint or PI Demo are the hardest of the agile process to fully achieve because it comes as an afterthought. Mid Sprint the team suddenly remembers that ai???we have to demonstrate somethingai??i??.ai??? so they pull together whateverAi??they can and hope it works at the demo. Ai??For demos to be effective, thinking of what pieces of work tied together can be demonstrated at all levels of scope decomposition is critical. Splitting a single Epic into two demonstrable pieces of value allows for easier prioritization, better understanding, effective execution and value added demonstrations.Ai??Consider demonstrations when breaking down work.Demo


Process to Value User stories

The process outlined below is not linear and is very iterative. Think back to being a kid working on that rubix cube: If you kept at it for hours, it would eventually aggravate you enough that you would throw it across the room!! Ai??Do not let that happen here. Start writing, have a conversation with someone (get their feedback), revise it, and then step back and see where you are. Then attack it again. It took my whole family an entire summer to get the rubix cube perfect. Donai??i??t expect to lock down scope in a day and throw it over the wall. It takes multiple iterations to get it right.

Below is more detail about the process.

  • Write – Get the information down on paper. The culture of meetings and discussion too often creates more confusion than clarity when it comes to alignment of scope and decisions. Verbal communication can lead to misunderstand if not framed properly. As a best practice, write and allow enough time for people to read, react and ask questions. This aligns to the 3Cs in user story writing. Ensure the card is established first so that there can be an effective conversation which lead to confirmation.
  • Revise ai??i?? Do not be afraid to adjust and create new Epics, Features or User Stories. Do not think of this as a traditional work breakdown structure.Ai?? At the core it may feel like it, but the principles and process enable iterations of determining the right scope. Feedback and conversation between the different levels of scope also helps to articulate the scope and validate true minimal valuable products. The management of these backlogs is an active discussion from top to bottom until the time of commitment at the team level.
  • Reflect ai??i??This rubix cube can get tricky as Epics and Features start to get split into 2 or 3 different Epics and Features. There are two key pieces to reflect on to ensure everything is staying aligned. First look across the features details to see if all major pieces of work are lining up to the proper sub pieces. Next ensure that when each piece Is complete is validated the benefits of the macro piece of work. This is critical to help ensure alignment. Constantly reflect and adapt to ensure the sum of the breakdown of work achieves the whole.

Call to Action

In my experience, I have seen teams and groups of teams called failures because they were unable to deliver value added user stories. This was not because the team was not effective or did not have the proper skill sets, it was because the team was unable to get alignment and a full understanding of the work.

In todayai??i??s environment, this is becoming the norm. The rubix cube approach to value added user stories helps to manage this unknown by ensuring that work is aligned to value and understood before it is committed to. It also helps to establish an iterative approach to scope refinement. If you are having challenges with delivering value added user stories, I ask you to try it, provide me feedback and improve the process.


Scaled Agile Framework (SAFeTM) change agents often face similar challenges when trying to implement SAFeTM within an organization. Change agent is a person from inside or outside an organization, which is driving a transformation for an organization. Change agents also have useful and creative tools and techniques in their toolkit to try to drive this change within the organization. However, many times transformations fall short.

Why does this happen?

As SAFe change agents, we need to reorganize and repurpose our toolkits to ensure that our tools and techniques for implementing SAFe clearly adhere to the SAFe principles and core values.

Scaled Agile transformations are really hard.

They are massively complex, have significant unknowns, and leaders typically expect results now! Ai??On top of that, with SAFe transformation comes the need for a dramatic culture shift within the organization. Ai??As a result of this complexity, there are several approaches to implementing SAFe within an organization. But ultimately, the value takes too long to achieve, the uncertainty around culture changes become unmanageable and the transformation loses momentum.

Does this sound familiar? The particularAi??issuesAi??that arise when implementingAi??SAFe are some of the same challenges thatAi??driveAi??organizationsAi??to want to adopt SAFe in the first place:Ai??the value of a product takes too long to get to the end consumer, requirements and consumer needs change at an unmanageable pace and the teams lose motivation.

So, if they have similar challenges, canai??i??t they be solved by the same solution? Assuming yes, why not solve transformation challenges by leading the transformation with SAFe principles and values?

There are five concepts from the SAFe principles and values that are critical to ensuring a successful SAFe transformation. Ai??By using these concepts, an organization can set its vision for the change, consistently inspecting and adapting yet getting quick value added wins, and is able to set a foundation for continuous improvement.

Build a Cross Functional Transformation Team

Building a coalition for change is critical to any transformation. Ai??When working to put together a transformation team to lead this change, consider what makes up a quality scrum team. Ai??Cross-functional teams are the best type of scrum teams as members can make decisions and work through dependencies within the team. Ai??So, a scrum team should have developers, testers, user experience experts, hardware, software, etc., so the team can build business value systems within the team.

With a team leading a transformation, the approach needs to be similar: i.e. assemble teams made up of members from all impacted areas of the change – business owners, program / project managers, software developers, infrastructure, human resource and a representative from every area that may be impacted. Ai??The key is to have a team with a wide enough perspective to help drive the change and deliver consistent messaging and processes across all areas. This will help to manage the variability in the messaging of the change.

Also, training is critical to ensure the team marches to the same beat. Every member of this transformation team must become a SAFe educated change agent in the organization to help drive the culture change across all layers/areas of the organization. Ai??While speed of change is important, we must spend a substantial amount of time on training to build a solid foundation for the transformation. Ai??If solid training of the core values and principles of SAFe is not implemented early, when the transformation team starts to drive change, they will fall flat in the organization. This is when you observe organizations doing the motions of agile rather than living the behaviors of strong agile values. Ai??Remember to spend time on training, leading agile thinkers and change leaders, to build that solid foundation upon which to move the transformation forward.

Visualize a Transformation Roadmap and Vision

Humans do not do things just for the sake of doing. We all have intrinsic motivation that drives us to change. In a transformation we demand a lot of our organization and team members. Ai??The transformation team must build up such intrinsic motivation for team members to change. Ai??Within SAFe, we achieve this goal by aligning the scrum teamai??i??s backlogs to strategic themes, vision and roadmaps. Ai??Theme, visions and roadmap should also set the context around why the organization needs to change, what are the opportunities and proposed solutions that are going to make the organization better. This gives the teams a context for the work and shows them how the work they are doing provides value back to the organization.

In a similar way, we must provide the context as to why we are taking part in specific agile ceremonies or changes in culture. Ai??People may see these changes as a waste of time or an attack on them personally, which often results in a negative reaction. Ai??People need to understand where they fit and even if they are apart of the to be motivated to fight with and not against the change. But if the context around the ceremony or process is presented, we can build up that intrinsic motivation and encourage a deeper engagement. Without this context, team members will just go through the motions without getting the true value. The key is unlocking that intrinsic motivation: it will enable the value to emerge behind those changes and build positive reactions toward the changes.

Daily Scrum Example:
  • Without intrinsic motivation behind change: If a team member is simply asked to go to the daily scrum, they will show up, give quick answers and move on with their day.
  • With intrinsic motivation behind change: The team member comes empower to social decisions made within team and address any blockers that need resolution.

The following are four steps that can help visualize the vision and roadmap to unlock the intrinsic motivation of team members:

  1. Establish a Vision ai??i?? After initial training of the transformation team, set some time to establish a vision and context for change. Establish the leading drivers for the change, e.g. faster time to market, high quality, etc.
  2. Build a backlog of opportunities ai??i?? The backlog should contain a specific set of tangible challenges within the current state of delivery in the organization. This helps make the changes real and relatable. Ai??The benefits behind the changes become tangible.
  3. Refine the backlog ai??i?? The refinement process within the SAFe framework helps to reduce complexity and ambiguity around the work at hand. Refining the backlog of opportunities will reap the same benefits for the transformation, as it will help align opportunities around the value to the organization.
  4. Establish a roadmap ai??i?? The backlog may seem intangible due to its size or complexity. Understand that a transformation does not happen overnight or over a period of weeks. Establish a six to twelve month rolling roadmap to help manage the amount of change as well as work in progress.

Take a Systems View When Planning

When taking a systems view in the Scaled Agile Framework we arrange backlogs to enable system development of business value over technical component development. A system can be an end-to-end solution, a set of people and a process to build an enterprise or a value stream to an end consumer. A system is only as good as it weakest link so a weak component within the system will tend to drive down the value of the stronger components and therefor hinder the value to the end consumer. The value behind a system is the cross functional slivers of value to the customer. Think of the 7-layer cake analogy, one bad layer and the whole cake is ruined, but if the layers are blended together it is culinary bliss. Ai??Without taking a systems approach to planning of the work, the value will always be bottlenecked by the weakest component to the end user.

The same thought process must be taken when looking at a transformation with the Scaled Agile Framework. Ai??SAFe is a system in itself and, like any system, if it has weak links, it will fail to provide its maximum intended value. Ai??When looking at the backlog of items for a transformation, it is critical to align opportunities around value to the organization. Ai??This ensures that as the framework is being integrated in the organization, it is built to maximize value in the system rather than create a weak link in the system. Ai??Below is an example of a value added SAFe System and a weak link SAFe System.

Value Added SAFe System: Implementing Kanban refinement processes at the Portfolio, Program and Team level which all align to the strategic themes of the enterprise.

Weak Link SAFe System: Performing a full PI Planning event without conducting an Inspect and Adapt workshop to learn from opportunities that arose.

This approach becomes critical to establish early wins in your transformation. Ai??When the transformation takes a systems approach, it provides value directly back to the organization, and any external stakeholder or agile naysayer in the organization will begin to see the light and positives of this approach. Ai??When we fail to take this approach, the door is left open for agile naysayers to latch on to the fact that the value is not achieved due to the weak links in the system. Implementing SAFe with systems thinking in mind will aid in getting support and changing those naysayers into change agents.

Take an Economic View of Prioritization

Taking an economic view when implementing in Scaled Agile framework, demands that we ensure maximum business value is delivered in the shortest about of time. Therefore time to market is essential and prioritizing backlog items based on those criteria is critical.

With SAFe transformations, the factor of time is the amount of cultural change that has to take place to implement the change. Ai??Transformations often experience severe delays or halt completely because of an organizationai??i??s inability to change the culture in a timely manner.Ai?? Similar to SAFe, when looking at the transformation backlog, time should be factored in as the amount of cultural change a specific item should take over another. Ai??Implementing a change with minimal cultural change may become a quick agile win over trying to implement something that requires a significant amount of cultural change to overcome.Ai?? This becomes critical to the SAFe Transformation providing business value.

An economic view translates into a review of the backlog for items, which would provide the most value and most significant progress in the shortest amount of time. Ai??Within the SAFe model, using the formula for Weighted Shorted Job First (WSJF) does this. Ai??This formula helps to identify the return on investment upon doing one piece of work over another with the primary focus around Cost of Delay (COD). Ai??It compares the COD relative to job size for a subset of the backlog. Ai??This formula should be used for the transformation backlog with some modifications. Ai??For transformations, the WSJF should be calculated as Value to Organization, Time Criticality, and Risk Reduction/Opportunity Enablement relative to the Degree of Cultural Change.

 

 

Since the largest blocker to any transformation is cultural change, it is critical to evaluate this factor when prioritizing. Letai??i??s take two examples to show this,

  1. As a part of a transformation there may be significant value in establishing the Product Owner role with someone from the Business. This would ensure work is aligned to business value.Ai?? But in this company the business is an entirely different organization than IT, thus forcing them to establish a Product Owner role would be a giant culture change. Ai??Using the transformation WSJF this would score fairly low due to the high impact of the degree of cultural change.
  2. On the other hand, establishing daily scrums and the scrum of scrum practices within an organization, which already has scrum master in place, would be a high transformation WSJF. This change has value to the organization, high-risk reduction and a low degree of cultural change.

Transform on a Cadence

The complexity behind software development is due to the unknown and variability in development. Technologies change, dependencies evolve and requirements change quicker than ever. Ai??With a SAFe Transformation, similar unknowns and variability will occur around the amount a change an organization is willing to take on at once. Ai??People have a tolerance limit to change and in general many people are change adverse. Ai??In any given situation within an organization the amount of change an organization can vary based upon that organization and a given situation. Ai??Several factors out of the control of the transformation team will limit the amount of change an organization is willing to handle.Ai?? As a result, a transformation should be conducted on a program increment and iteration cadence. Ai??This would include having PI Planning, Iteration Planning, Stand Ups and Inspect and Adapt workshops as a minimal viable product. Ai??The purpose of this is control and managing work in process, inspect and adapt on complete transformation work, and line up future work, based on value. Ai??A description of how each of the ceremonies should be run to gain this purpose is shown below.

Transformation PI Planning ai??i?? All members of the transformation team and key sponsors attend.Ai?? A half day meeting where the vision and roadmap is updated. The outcomes should be a determination of any major milestones, an updated vision and roadmap, commitment of backlog items and resolution of any critical barriers. The team should establish measurements of success of the program increment and commit to their work around those measurements.

Transformation Sprint Planning ai??i?? Conducted every two weeks with the entire transformation team. Ai??Each meeting should last no more than one hour. Ai??Outcomes of the meeting include resolving any upcoming issues, monitoring change tolerance, and committing work for the next 2 weeks.

Transformation Stand-Up – Occurs 2 to 3 times a week and follows typical standup ceremonies across the transformation team.

Inspect and Adapt ai??i?? Conducted every two weeks focusing on the progress made, lessons learned, updating of future backlog items.

Transforming on a cadence allows for constant commitment to change as well as constant feedback. Ai??It also creates a sense of urgency around the change, which the transformation team, and rest of the organization, can feel and build on throughout the transformation.

Empowering Changing Agents

At the begin of this journey, I discussed the need for SAFe change agents to reorganize and repurpose their toolkits to transformations with more SAFe values and principles. I have outlined some of my modifications to my toolkit to be better aligned to SAFe principles and values.Ai??Ai?? My hope is that you, as SAFe change agents and leading agile thinkers and organizational leaders, are now empowered to reflect on how you are transforming your organization and ask are we following SAFe principles and values during your transformation.

  • Do you have a properly trained transformation team to lead this change?
  • Is your Transformation roadmap and vision clear and understood?
  • Are you taking a systems view to planning your transformation?
  • Does prioritization of your transformation backlog occur with an economic view?
  • Are you driving your transformation in a scrum like fashion?

If no to any of these, take time to reflect and take action to allow your transformation to be better aligned to SAFe principles and values.

If yes to all these, than I challenge you to keep true to the SAFe principles and values and look for continuous improvement.

_________________________________________________________

DanAi??TeixeiraAi??is currently an Agile Change Agent for BlueAi??Agility, helping leadAi??organizations from team level to portfolioAi??transformation to optimizeAi??delivery ofAi??business value.Ai??DanAi??brings his expertise inAi??Agile/LeanAi??best practices and industry experiences toAi??help teams deliver the right results, faster and withAi??higher quality.Ai??DanAi??is passionate about shepherding organizational change management across all levels of the enterprise by empowering people with new and innovative ways to viewAi??problems and solve challenges. He strives to bring meaningfulAi??new approachesAi??into organizationsAi??to ultimately improve the lives of people. Order baclofen, order Zoloft.