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 “Rubix Cube to Value Added User Stories”. 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 – 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 – 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 – Clear description of the “what” and “ Known How’s” of the piece of work. Identification of In Scope, Out of Scope, assumptions and Non‑Functional Requirements help to articulate the work.
  • Benefits – 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!  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.  But today we can’t do that because market needs change too often and we can’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.  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 today’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.  

  • Align – 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.  Doing this will minimize the risk of gold plating and keep the work aligned to value as it was intended.
  • Ensure – Validate that the work can be achieved by ensuring there is an understanding of the work Alignment to valueacross all stakeholders. Ensure they 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. 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.
  • 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 “we have to demonstrate something….” so they pull together whatever they can and hope it works at the demo.  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. 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!!  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. Don’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 – 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.  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 –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 today’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.