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User Stories: Your First Step Should Always Be Back

Have you ever played an outfield position in baseball or softball? As an outfielder, your primary responsibility is catching pop flies.

When you hear the crack of the bat, there’s a moment of panic as you try to figure out where the ball is headed. For young players, their first instinct is always to run forward, which usually leads to the ball flying over their head and the batter advancing several bases.
When I played softball, my coach had a mantra for outfielders, “Your first step should always be back!” The coach asked the outfielders to take a quick step back, gauge the ball’s trajectory and then choose their approach.

Our backlogs are filled with hundreds of pop flies. And to build better user stories, our first step should always be back. We need to step back, check our sources and analyze the big picture before we decide how to proceed.

Where Do All These Pop Flies Come From?

When the backlog items come flying at you, it’s important to take a step back and figure out where they are coming from. Are your stakeholders like methodical ace pitchers or are they wild and erratic? Does the product owner swing at anything or do they evaluate each pitch to see if it’s worth a swing?

Most backlogs are filled with a random mix of enhancement requests, defects, and ideas submitted by a random mix of stakeholders. If BAs work the backlog as is, without discovery and analysis, the team will struggle. Delivery will be slow, teams will build the wrong things and customers will be frustrated. BAs will be bogged down by a never-ending backlog of more requests and missed requirements.

Existing backlogs need to be aligned to strategic priorities. BAs need to step back and look at how backlog items connect and how they align with organization goals. Ideally, BAs analyze and transform these submitted backlog ideas into better user stories that give stakeholders and end users what they really need versus what they think they need.

Work with Your Pitcher and Batter

After you step back and really examine the backlog of pop flies, it’s time to tame your wild pitchers and help your batter develop a more selective swing. The discovery process engages project leaders and stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of needs and priorities. It’s all about getting the team thinking and talking.

Ideally, and good practices is for BAs to use multiple techniques to help teams discover what’s possible and solve problems. The most effective discovery sessions help teams generate ideas, evolve and innovate. They include collaborative elicitation experiences that inspire meaningful dialog between stakeholders.

Just sitting around a table and talking isn’t enough—build engaging activities, prepare thought-provoking questions, get people moving by building visual models with sticky notes or drawing on white boards, try gamestorming, etc.


Go Moneyball

As the team moves through the discovery process, it’s important for BAs to make time for moneyball.

Do you remember Moneyball? Adapted from a book of the same name, the popular 2011 movie tells the story of famous baseball guru who stepped back, analyzed the game and changed the way organizations build winning baseball teams.

This is the job of every BA. “Go moneyball” on the backlog and user stories! Analyze the results of the discovery sessions to reveal gaps, make connections and define the real problems.

BAs can’t skip analysis. This BA thinking time, outside of the discovery sessions, is where BAs really boost the value they provide. When BAs analyze processes, data, and people, they find impacts and gaps in known requirements and ultimately deliver better solutions. This is the time to pull out your analysis models and techniques to help you think and analyze.

Getting the WIN!

When BAs take a step back, create engaging discovery activities and make time for analysis, teams are much more likely to get the win. But remember you don’t just move through these steps once. You don’t just look at the backlog, do one discovery session, then analyze and go— it’s an iterative process.

BAs repeat the elicitation cycle over and over as they dig deeper into details. You’re really playing ball when you find ways to experiment with and test what you’ve learned from discovery and analysis.

Good user stories and good requirements in general, always come back to the basics of business analysis and making sure we advocate for the elicitation and analysis pieces of our BA approach. Don’t just chase after every pop fly that comes your way. Make sure your first step is back so you can get the perspective you need to help your organization win.