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Themes in Scrum

There is considerable discussion among Scrum practitioners on the subject of themes.  Sprints often have a theme, which is more akin to a goal.  User Stories are also quite often organized into themes to help with managing the overall progress of a project.  Id like to look at User Story themes a little more closely.

One issue that I foresee in our own evolving scrum process is that certain types of projects may not ever bubble their way up into a sprint.  For instance, features and UX may often seem to deliver the highest Business value, while refactoring and documentation may be viewed as important – even essential – yet never quite deliver the business value when compared to other more visible projects.  The situation reminds me of the old sports adage, “Second place is the first loser.”  The point here is, how do we make sure that our sprints address a wide range of topics, and don’t get overly focused on only the highest priority items?

As an example, an epic user story describing a rich product feature that delivers a great deal of tangible business value is decomposed into perhaps a dozen smaller user stories of decreasing business value.  The highest value stories are the ones that deliver the minimal marketable, or minimal usable feature set, and their associated validation processes.  Next in line might be features that are essential to a finished and professional product, followed by “nice to have” features.  Finally, if we are smart enough, we have added stories for documentation and help, sales support, or even training.

So, what happens when we complete a sprint or two and deliver the highest value subset of stories and now start planning the next sprint?  Well, there is a very good chance that other high value features are in the backlog that trump the remaining stories in our first feature set.  Now, our goal may very well be to deliver as may minimally viable features as we can, which is a fine goal.  However, were does this leave the “nice to have’s”?  The documentation and sales support?  It would be nice if we could prioritize these before we forget everything that went into building the higher value stories.

I think the solution is to create themes for the user stories and commit to adding stories from all themes into sprints as appropriate. For example, maybe documentation and help is only 25% as valuable as the major features of the product.  Now, we clearly don’t want to neglect the high value features, after all, customers don’t buy a product because it has good help screens.  However, customers do stay with a product and tell their peers about it when it is polished and the user experience is great – so we don’t want to neglect these features either.

What I propose is that the Product Owner commit to organizing the backlog into Themes that allow some of the lower relative value items to be addressed on a periodic basis.  For instance, in our example above, we determined that documentation and help generally had business values around 25% of that of the highest value feature stories.  Then the team should commit to addressing stories in this “theme” once every four sprints.  In other words, the goal of every 4th sprint should be to focus on documentation and help themed stories.  That way, the highest value items always get the highest amount of attention, but 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place see a little action, too.

Here are some suggested themes that I think might work for our specific sprints:

  • Major user functionality
  • User experience (UX)
  • “Nice to have” features and product polish
  • API’s
  • Documentation and Help
  • Training and Sales support
  • Marketing support
  • Back end architecture and Data Modeling
  • Refactoring

This list is very much off the top of my head, but I am sure it could be fine tuned.

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