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4 Habits Agile Teaches That We Can All Refocus on in 2016!

Agile was born out of a conversation about what works well in software development. It wasn’t meant to be a dramatically “new” way of working. In the context of requirements, embracing agile empowers teams to focus on business value, user experience, and empathy, and collaboration. This focus should be applied to all projects no matter what approach we take or what methodology we use.  

With this in mind, we need to question our current solution delivery practices. When did our focus shift away from our users? How did we lose our connection with our organizational mission?  When did we stop questioning the value of each task we perform as part of the project? Why do we dread meetings and prefer to hide in our cubes instead of collaborating with our team?

We’ve lost touch with our core values, but what’s driving this divergence? Here are a few trends that may be influencing this:

  • Organizational governance and methodologies that focus on and measure the completion of documents and templates.
  • Resource reductions caused by the economic downturn in the early 2000s. Smaller teams did not have the capacity to provide maximum value; they were pressured to do the minimum, and the minimum was defined by templates.
  • The rise of the PM role in the 90s and early 2000s where time and cost (of getting documents completed) took precedence over the delivery of value.

“Going Agile” may not solve this problem. I would argue that many agile teams are more focused on sprint timelines, ceremonies, and velocity, then on value, collaboration, and user experience. Isn’t this the same conversation that inspired the agile mindset—just different words for schedule, cost, and productivity? So, are we really embracing the agile principles if this is happening? Or are we just looking at it like a “new” methodology?

What does “Going Agile” really mean to your organization? And, to you as a BA? Are requirements practices and value being left behind? Many agile practices, principles, and values remind us of business value, user experience, and collaboration; but why should it take a mature agile practice to do this?

Let’s get back to what matters as BAs! The documents, models, diagrams, and all the meetings are important too, but let’s remember why we are doing all of it! Let’s use the four strategies below to regain our focus. Let’s make value, user experience and collaboration part of our mindset, our behaviors, and our way of working.  This can be, and should be a large part of our practices no matter what approach or methodology we use.

1. Focus on organizational value every day.

BAs provide value by keeping their team focused on the mission, vision, strategy, and goals of the organization. Every product/solution detail should align! BAs apply this agile strategy by asking themselves and others questions like:

  • How does this solution benefit the organization? 
  • What part of our mission does this product support? Does it offer strong support? How could we change it to better serve our mission?
  • How does this list of project priorities align with our organizational strategy? 
  • Which parts of the project help us achieve our mission faster? 
  • Which organizational goal does this feature help us achieve? 

Ask value-focused questions during every phase of the project, but especially when you are:

  • Identifying needs
  • Eliciting requirements
  • Assessing risks
  • Prioritizing features
  • Resolving issues
  • Building release schedules

2. Make user experience and user empathy a priority.

The goal of any product/project/solution is to delight the end user and, therefore, strengthen the organization. We tend to lose focus on the end user when we get bogged down in the day to day details of delivery. Our focus often shifts to the needs of the delivery team. We start talking about protocols, databases, interfaces, integrations, and upgrades, instead of user needs, user preferences, user priorities, and user experience. In addition, we need to think about and discuss how aspects of the user experience align to the business value discussed above.

To delight your end users, integrate tasks and techniques into your project work that help your team:

  • Understand the end user’s needs and goals.
  • Understand how the user’s goals align to and support higher level business goals.
  • Analyze user pain points to find the root cause of problems. 
  • Uncover your end user’s thoughts and feelings about the current state and future state. 
  • Prioritize/make decisions based on value to the end user and alignment to the organization.

Great BAs use a wide variety of techniques to help their team keep user experience top-of-mind, but here are a few suggestions: 

  • Create, build, and analyze personas, and their linkage to value and strategy.
  • Use empathy maps to analyze value and user experience.
  • Allow users to interact with prototypes.
  • Get input/feedback from user focus groups.
  • Build user stories that are truly from a user perspective and show business value.
  • Ask user-focused questions: How will this benefit the user? Does this feature align with the top 3 user goals? How could we improve the user experience?

3. Facilitate engaging, collaborative and structured conversations with stakeholders before documenting requirements.

Documentation needs to be secondary to shared understanding. Great BAs use a variety of facilitation techniques to help the team understand purpose, value, and context before requirements are written. 

BAs need to create an environment where all team members contribute to meaningful conversation. When BAs focus on learning and discovering, instead of just collecting and recording, they will boost their team’s ability to navigate complex change. Here are the key components of engaging and collaborative conversations: 

  • Use simple, high-level visual models to get discussions started.
  • Allow team members time to react to each model and help them update the model collaboratively.
  • Do not expect to create shared understanding in one meeting. Progressively dig deeper into details with additional visual models. 
  • Allow thinking time in between sessions. Encourage stakeholders to share models with their team, and to identify questions, gaps, and concerns. 
  • Analyze the results of each collaboration session to make the next session productive, helping the team move steadily toward their goals.
  • Let the team weigh in on what needs to be documented to move forward—only document what’s valuable. 

4. Question the value of everything we do (and are asked to do) as BAs.

We can dramatically change the results when we understand the “why” behind everything we do. The why defines the value of each task and helps us act efficiently on that value proposition. BAs should ask themselves and their leaders:

  • What value does this task, requirement or feature provide?
  • Who gets value out of the artifacts we produce? 
  • Why are we doing it? Because we always have, or because someone “expects” it?  

Don’t let fear drive the team to do a bunch of busy work. Recognize fear as the driver and ask yourself and the team if this is really something the team should be spending money on? I like to ask myself:  “If this was my home we were improving, would I spend the money to pay someone to do this?”  If the contractor said he needed another $50,000 to create a 300-page spec document to remodel my home, what questions would I ask before handing over and approving that spend for a document?

Don’t waste time on things that don’t provide value for the user or the organization. 

Your BA approach should be different for each project and your organization should allow flexibility. If your organization requires templates, documentation, procedures and processes that do not add value, advocate for change. Can you influence what is produced, when it is produced, or how it is produced?