Harvesting Stakeholder Perspectives to Organize Your Backlog


This article also appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Better Software magazine


When Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener facilitated a game called The Backlog Is in the Eye of the Beholder for the Boston chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis, both the players and the facilitators learned some important lessons in organizing a project requirements backlog. In this article, they describe the game and what it revealed, including the value of truly knowing your stakeholders.

Every agile or Scrum team knows the dilemma of organizing the backlog of project requirements. It’s like cleaning out the garage. You know you’ll have to handle everything sooner or later, but where do you start? How do you organize the work to get the most out of it? 

It’s easiest to follow the squeaky wheel methodology—fulfill the desires of whoever is complaining loudest this week—but that’s not the path to delivering the highest value for your customer. The key to organizing the stories in your backlog is to explore their value from a number of perspectives.

This lesson was the goal of a game Mary co-created earlier this year at the New England Agile Bazaar’s Deep Agile Games weekend event. The game is called “The Backlog Is in the Eye of the Beholder.” Recently, at the Boston chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), we facilitated this game for a group of more than sixty people.  The gamers learned a lot, and we learned even more.

Sowing the Seeds
The game consists of four rounds, each focused on a different persona related to a farm: the producer/farmer, the customer/buyer, the land owner, and the Farm Bureau inspector. In small teams, the participants analyze a group of tasks (e.g., fertilize crops, spray insecticide, rotate crops, and assure organic). The players organize the tasks according to the perspective of that round’s persona.

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This game has two purposes. The obvious one is to explore the views of multiple stakeholders and organize the tasks according to who wants what. The less-obvious (but related) one is to illuminate the value of organizing the work without prioritizing. If that concept leaves you puzzled, read on. As we said, IIBA participants weren’t the only ones who learned valuable lessons.

What the Gamers Gleaned
The game worked quickly to meet our first purpose. Exploring different stakeholders’ perspectives (in this case, using personas) indeed allowed for progressively deeper understanding of the product needs.

 In one example of that deeper understanding, the players realized that a number of stakeholder needs were shared among personas, whereas other needs did not overlap at all—a key discovery in organizing a backlog. How do you apply the lesson? You use a gradient of “don’t care” to “really care” for each persona for each product need—a practice that quickly illuminates shared value versus conflicting value. Many of the gamers were surprised to find that understanding the “don’t care” perspective was just as important as comprehending the “really care.”

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