Let Me Tell You a Story…

Have there ever been more beautiful words than “Let me tell you a story”?  This is what parents say to children. This is what a book or a movie says with its title.

By some measure, the only difference between Homo Sapien and Homo Erectus is that Homo Sapien could tell stories. So, stories are more than entertainment; stories are what makes us human.

Story is all around us. It’s everywhere. It’s even in software. Most obviously it’s in agile in the form of user stories, or if you prefer ‘requirements.” It’s in the simple ‘as a, I want to, so that’. But it’s much more than that.

To truly understand story’s role in software we have to understand what the world is telling us – in effect, we need to be active listeners and to construct a coherent vision. Only then can we construct epics and understand how the humble user story fits into the big picture.

And the user stories do fit, they must fit. Because what is a user story without an epic? And what is an epic without a vision? They’re lost.

Consider the story of Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, he had a great fall, he got smashed into a million pieces, and nobody could put him back together again.

If you only have user stories, you haven’t got the complete picture. You’ve just got a bunch of egg shell.

If you’re a technical type, and somebody explains to you their ‘big vision’ of what the system is going to do, that’s all very well to give you context, but it’s not enough to allow you to go back to your desk and start coding. It’s too ‘high level’.

If you’re a visionary type, if you’re in marketing or sales, or if you’re an entrepreneur trying to launch a new product on the market, you can paint your grand vision for an audience of programmer types and wonder why you are confronted with blank stares. It’s normal to view IT people as a brake or a block on your creativity. It’s normal, but it’s not a true reflection of what’s happening. It’s a misunderstanding.

I call this the ‘Goldilocks problem.’

In the story of Goldilocks the father bear’s porridge is too hot, the mother bear’s porridge is too cold, but the baby bear’s porridge is ‘just right’. Consider for a moment that you, as the specifier of what you want, are the porridge maker. Hot porridge is not wrong – it’s simply not what Goldilocks needs.

Your vision is a piping hot bowl of porridge, your epics are a medium hot bowl of porridge, and when the porridge cools down for the most delicate of palettes, it is a user story and ready to eat by your developers. Unlike Goldilocks, developers eat cool porridge. When you give it to them, they are very happy, and they get to work making your vision a reality. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen as quickly as you might wish. But it will happen, in a structured way at a pace that is predictable.

When you have confidence that your vision is taking shape, you are happy. When the team is consuming user stories, at the correct size and level of detail, then they are happy.

This is the secret to good morale in the workplace. And this is what makes for ‘team’ being more than a four letter word.

We are talking here about a hierarchy of story from vision that is satisfied by epics, to user stories that make epics come true. When this structure is in place, dreams come true. Humpty Dumpty may be lying on the ground in a thousand pieces, but now the King’s men and the horses know they are really looking at an egg.

This post first appeared here.

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