INVEST a little more in your stories

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I’m a big fan of the INVEST mnemonic, which encourages agile story authors to make their stories Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small and Testable. There are plenty of great sources for more detail, so I won’t rehash them here. Having introduced a number of teams to INVEST I often find I need to follow up with three more items.  Leading to the notion of INVESTpul, and yes, before you say it, I really should figure out a better backronym:

Provoking – A good story provokes conversation, it is a much an expression of wish as a challenge, how can this goal best be achieved given the constraints the team operates within?  All too often this element is lost, and work becomes about churning stories, regardless of their value, with the dangerous assumption that all the quality thinking has been done already. Opportunities present themselves in different ways throughout an iteration, and we should remain alert and ready to seize them, to pivot based on new information.

Ubiquitous – The language of stories should be readily understood by the team, its stakeholders and drive-by observers. Drive-by observers are often influential, and may even be the ultimate sponsors of the team, packing up late I often see evening board walking by the leadership team. Their support of the team, and agile, may be effected by how well they understand stories, and the impression they get from the board carrying them. Ubiquitous language discourages technical terms, the presence of which often indicates that a solution to the story has already been agreed, diminishing connection to the user and narrowing the team’s potential to find other ways of achieving the same aims.

Legible – It seems incredible that this needs saying, but it does. It should be possible to read stories easily, this doesn’t just apply to handwriting, it means using sensible fonts when printing cards, and avoiding cramming information into small spaces. The ideal story card passes a three foot test – it can be read by anyone participating in a board based discussion, like a stand up, which necessitates some members standing about 3ft away

The Six Foot Test
While we’re on the subject, another distance themed test I like relates to the overall board. The six foot test is simple; from standing that far away what could someone learn about the team’s work?  That distance is deliberately chosen because generally you can’t read individual story cards, putting focus firmly on flow and the system of work. It is particularly useful to forget what you know and don a stakeholder hat for this exercise.  At a minimum I would hope to be able to determine the following:

  • The team name
  • Their high level goal
  • Amount of work in progress
  • Phases or stages work passes through.
  • Who is doing what
  • Which work is blocked, or needs help

From the appointed distance I’d also look around the board, the presence of artifacts like definition of done, column policies, burn down charts and metrics are positive indicators.  Another interesting aspect is the presence, or otherwise, of playful elements, often these are reflections of trust and safety within the team.

So that’s how to write INVESTpul stories, along with some bonus musings on good board practice. The author Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said; “Perfection is Achieved Not When There Is Nothing More to Add, But When There Is Nothing Left to Take Away”.  So tell me, what would you add or remove from INVEST?

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