“Slice!” Making meaningful progress visible

What if you had to report daily your progress on the tasks you’re programming in your project. Wait, you say: “I already do that in my daily standup meetings“. But if your standup meeting is anything like most standup meetings out there, you’ve got a serious blind spot.

What if I said that writing code doesn’t constitute progress. Code is effort, not value. In order to demonstrate value, you have to be able to show your progress to someone who doesn’t care about code. You have to demonstrate actual functionality, all the time.

In this blog post, I want to explore what happens when you demand that you plan and develop your project solely based on slices of functionality with business value, and what happens if you demand that these slices should become ever thinner: You know where you’re going, your customer knows how far you’ve come, and you’re always ready to ship.

Elephant Carpaccio

The more frequently you want to demonstrate progress, the more aggressive you have to be about how you break up your tasks. The most extreme version is perhaps the one demonstrated by Alistair Cockburn in his Elephant Carpaccio exercise (video). In it, the workshop participants are asked to develop a software system that does the following: “Register the unit price, quantity and US state of a purchase. Produce the total price, tax amount (state dependent) and discount (%-rate depends on total price). If there’s time, also produce reports of all sales per month and per state.”

The goal of the exercise is to divide this task into as many small feature slices as possible. In a 90 minute workshop, the teams each complete five iterations with a demo of new functionality at the end of each. In the video, you can hear teams frequently shout “Slice!” as they perform an internal demo of a functional slice several times in each iteration.

To complete the exercise, the participants develop a battle plan for how to deliver the smallest possible feature slice. For example: Input a sale, calculate and display the total price. “Slice!” Calculate the sales tax for a single state. “Slice!” Calculate the sales tax for three states. “Slice!” Introduce a table with tax rates to calculate the tax rate for any state. “Slice!” Give 3% discount on sales above $1000. “Slice!” And so on.

When you look to slice up the stories on your product backlog into tasks you should complete the next iteration, a few of the same approaches can be useful: If you need a screen to register some data, how about starting with registering just one field? “Slice!” And then register all fields, but without layout or validation. “Slice!” And then add validation. “Slice!” And then create a good layout. “Slice!”

If you split your next story into feature slices, your customer is probably going to be much more interested on your stand-up. If she learns of something she can test right after the stand-up meeting is done, she will probably feel much better about your progress as well.

If you create a carpaccio-style battle plan for how you want to solve the next story on your backlog, you will probably notice the old adage: “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” Even though you have to rewrite your development battle plan, it will help you to know what to do and to always make progress towards a meaningful next goal post.

Finally, if the tasks you complete all mean progress towards the business goal of the project, you’re always ready to ship. Even if a vicious flu takes out the team for half an iteration, Christmas sneaks up on you as it always does, or, god forbid, the project runs out of money: You will have something you can ship.

One word of warning, though: Alistair Cockburn reports that during the Elephant Carpaccio exercise, people create crappy code. If you want to be able to deliver tomorrow as well as today, you must avoid the temptation of forgetting good engineering practices in order to ship something earlier. Start each slice with a bit of refactoring to get the code ready for a clean addition of functionality. Always write tests for your slices. And keep the code clean: You code may not do everything yet, but what it does do, it should do properly.

Are you ready to create a sprint plan that’s meaningful both to the developers and the product owner? How thin can you slice that elephant?

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
This entry was posted in Agile Release Patterns, English, Extreme Programming, Software Development. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Slice!” Making meaningful progress visible

  1. Johannes, have you heard of the concept of “span plan”? I’ve used it a few times to try to do exactly what you describe, namely focus on thin slices of value-add.My experience with thinning slices (and the way a span plan works) is that you end up getting quite shallow features.

    Span Plan: http://agileproductdesign.com/blog/the_new_backlog.html (also called story maps)

  2. Thank you for your comment, Erik.

    I haven’t heard the word “span plan” before, but I’ve seen some of Jeff Patton’s work before. Is “span plan” and “user story mapping” the same thing?

    User story mapping does help break things down quite a bit. I’m also looking for techniques to go much much further in breakdown. From a business planning point of view, user story mapping is probably an optimal level. From an iteration planning point of view, we need to break down things further.

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