How to manage your development portfolio through Agile Focus Stories

Learn how Focus Stories can steer development projects away from negative consequences, perverse effects and software deviations, while adding value to your product. A Focus Story is a team effort to scale out large and complex lines of software function into shorter, deliverable iterations.

Part four closes the series with a look at the value Focus Stories bring to product owner, stakeholder, and project portfolio management as they comprehensively manage change in direction for large efforts in an organization. Over the past three parts of this series we have explored the impact and contributions a Focus Story makes to the management of the product backlog, quality and testability of the value delivered. We have also...

touched upon the contributions Focus Stories make in delivering complex products that are consistent in delivering high value features that work as perfectly as possible.

Living the law of unintended consequences

For the most part, stakeholders and product owners value something they understand and can express to us in such a way that we can break it down into chunks that can be expressed in Boolean logic, '0'and'1'. It is during this journey here that everyone involved enters the world of emergence and its seemingly immutable 'Law of Unintended Consequences.'

Unintended Consequences are outcomes that are not (or not limited to) the results originally intended by a particular action. The unintended results may be foreseen or unforeseen, but they should be the logical or likely results of the action. The concept has long existed but was popularized in the 20th century by the American sociologist, Robert K. Merton.

Unintended consequences can be grouped into roughly three types:

  • a positive unexpected benefit, usually referred to as serendipity or a windfall.
  • a perverse effect, that may be contrary to what was originally intended,. This situation can arise when a policy has a perverse incentive and causes actions contrary to what is desired.
  • a negative effect, where although the original policy had the desired effect - e.g. irrigation schemes do provide people with water for agriculture, they often increase waterborne disease. . .

Focus Stories consolidate business goals or a "mission statement" of a large effort with the product owner's intent by highlighting the most important definition of done to a 'done by' statement. In doing this they become tools for anyone caring to use them. First there are the User Story filters of what is immediately important from what is strategically important. Second, it creates a map of value traceability that can go from the business vision to the testable attributes of a task. Finally, it marks the map with testable boundaries that may or may not be reached. In cases where the value cannot be measurably tested, boundary product owners and stakeholders have the option to halt further development, use alternative acceptance criteria, or invest in finding a solution.

The value the Focus Story offers

The intention of the Focus Story is to provide the product owner and stakeholder with some ability to understand the impacts of their decisions, particularly when scaling an Agile effort. It aids in seeing the impact of decisions that:

  • Change in the value of a user story or even in the Focus Story. In multi-team projects having the ability to review the impact a possible change would have on both what has already been accepted (in terms of possible loss of value), as well as what will be reprioritized in planned delivery, be understood more completely before action is taken.
  • Evaluate and adjust a value stream with a component that cannot be quantitatively or qualitatively tested is immediately recognized and adjustments to the future development plans for that stream can be made.
  • Introduce new priorities with higher value that shift the focus of the product, to meet market demand. The fiscal, emotional, and technical impact of this can lead to product and programmatic conflicts have been widely discussed by Clayton Christensen in his "Innovator series. " He states that the struggle over the direction an innovation takes once markets look for ways to improve their vision are not in line with the innovator's vision. People interested in this area will find his work a source of considerable thought.
Related content
Scaling Agile development: Get your Focus Story together
Learn to adapt to changing initiatives in an agile software project this may require altering test driven and acceptance test driven development practices are key to success.

Aligning business goals with Focus Stories
Software development roles evolve as product owner focus changes. Agile groups may need to adjust test strategy, roadmaps and iterations to ensure top-notch QA, says an expert.

Agile development: Quality assurance, consistency in testing
Learn how to use Focus Stories to organize and manage dense software development backlogs. In doing this, your Agile software team will have less hassle completing iterations.

How to manage your development portfolio through Agile Focus Stories
Learn how Focus Stories can steer development projects away from negative consequences, perverse effects and software deviations, while adding value to your product.

Next steps in the emergent role of Focus Stories

The role of the Focus Story in Agile continues to emerge. Another group of 'interested parties' who are managing large projects are responsible for the product portfolio management. Changes in product value and priority are a key source of backlog growth. These changes come from many quarters; findings of the projects under way; shifts in the market sparking new requirements to released products as well as shifts in corporate goals and visions. All impact the product and project portfolio these people work with.

Of all the places where there is a need to trace, measure and understand the impact of change of Focus on the value of a story is needed, it is here at the Agile PMO. Authors such as Johanna Rothman (Manage Your Project Portfolio ) and Sanjiv Augustine (Managing Agile Projects ) have written on the tactics and strategies needed in Agile PMO work. What Focus Stories may have to offer is if each project were to have a Focus Story tied to the overarching goals and priorities of the organization, then ranking techniques supporting portfolio decisions such as those described by Rothman would have explicit paths to roll rankings up to the goals, priorities, and values of the organization. PMO's would also be able to trace changes down to the smallest task and the value teams created.

Gathering the loose ends

Focus Stories can and do live up to their name in assisting product owners, stakeholders, scrum masters, and teams with consistent, comprehensible, and applicable information that proactively filters and guides teams across large projects to deliver testable, accountable complex items of value at any given time. As a planning and traceability tool, Focus Stories support verifiable decision making at the tactical and operational levels of a large project by providing both a done by statement and an acceptance criteria for done. This article also suggests there may be a strategic value if the Focus Story is aligned with the ranking of the project in a portfolio. It can tie the smallest measurable task to the highest goals and priorities in the organization.


Mike Dwyer is a Principal Agile Coach at BigVisible Solutions. He is a Certified Scrum Trainer and his practice focuses on transforming organization's product lifecycle into hyper-productive Agile teams.
This was first published in January 2010

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