Can we use our backlog for professional growth by tracking and talking about what we want to learn?
Stories are nice, but…
As an agile coach I’ve spent a lot of time teaching and helping people practice writing stories in the classic format “As a […] I Want […] So That […]”. The virtues of this format are well known, so I won’t waste words there. But, what about the shortcomings?
Because stories represent conversations, they’re intended to defer discovery until the last possible moment. However, classical thinking still demands that we think of them as deliverables. Once we begin down that road, it can be very easy to begin treating stories just like a queue of work to keep people busy.
We’re not comfortable with uncertainty, so we research everything then write and estimate stories for projects upfront.
Roles and teams get put in place to ensure that the stories are written, vetted, and prioritized with enough of a buffer that the engineering team never stops coding.
In planning, we question whose best suited to get work done so the most value is being delivered. After all, we want our velocity and utilization to be high. We optimize ourselves for speed and turn ourselves into a small team of specialists.
You Get What You Optimize
Those outcomes aren’t accidental. They are a direct outcome of trying to optimize a system to maximize the utilization of a limited resource (team member time). We want to keep them busy.
Unfortunately, optimizing to keep everyone busy, makes it very hard to manage other aspects of our work. Are we doing the right things? Are we doing them the right way? Are people growing?
Of those, concern about team member growth is the biggest miss. Most companies know this already, and to fix it they add team member development as a separate activity. Every year there is a review. In many companies, every few weeks there’s a one-on-one meeting between the team member and leader. These are the forums for facilitating growth.
Ironically, as we make headway with iterative delivery and agile practices for our work itself, our people development is still firmly rooted in a waterfall-like annual cycle with few feedback loops.
A Backlog of Growth & Learning Opportunities
What would it look like if our backlog wasn’t a list of things to do?
What would it look like if it was a list of things to learn and ways to grow?
What would it mean to our organization if leaders were prioritizing and discussing opportunities for team member growth rather than deliverables?
These are the questions that led me to propose the idea of scientific development.