Negotiable Stories in the INVEST Model

In the INVEST model for user stories, N is for Negotiable (and Negotiated). Negotiable hints at several important things about stories:

  • The importance of collaboration
  • Evolutionary design
  • Response to change

Collaboration

Why do firms exist? Why isn't everything done by individuals interacting in a marketplace? Nobel-prize winner Ronald Coase gave this answer: firms reduce the friction of working together. 

Working with individuals has costs: you have to find someone to work with, negotiate a contract, monitor performance carefully–and all these have a higher overhead compared to working with someone in the same firm. In effect, a company creates a zone where people can act in a higher-trust way (which often yields better results at a lower cost). 

The same dynamic, of course, plays out in software teams; teams that can act from trust and goodwill expect better results. Negotiable features take advantage of that trust: people can work together, share ideas, and jointly own the result. 

Evolutionary Design

High-level stories, written from the perspective of the actors that use the system, define capabilities of the system without over-constraining the implementation approach. This reflects a classic goal for requirements: specify what, not how. (Admittedly, the motto is better-loved than the practice.)

Consider an example: an online bookstore. (This is a company that sells stories and information printed onto pieces of paper, in a package known as a "book.") This system may have a requirement "Fulfillment sends book and receipt." At this level, we've specified our need but haven't committed to a  particular approach. Several implementations are possible:

  • A fulfillment clerk gets a note telling which items to send, picks them off the shelf, writes a receipt by hand, packages everything, and takes the accumulated packages to the delivery store every day.
  • The system generates a list of items to package, sorted by (warehouse) aisle and customer. A clerk takes this "pick list" and pushes a cart through the warehouse, picking up the items called for. A different clerk prints labels and receipts, packages the items, and leaves them where a shipper will pick them up. 
  • Items are pre-packaged and stored on smart shelves (related to the routing systems used for baggage at large airports). The shelves send the item to a labeler machine, which sends them to a sorter that crates them by zip code, for the shipper to pick up. 

Each of these approaches fulfills the requirement. (They vary in their non-functional characteristics, cost, etc.)

By keeping the story at a higher level, we leave room to negotiate: to work out a solution that takes everything into account as best we can. We can create a path that lets us evolve our solution, from basic to advanced form. 

Feedback

Waterfall development is sometimes described as "throw it over the wall": create a "perfect" description of a solution, feed it to one team for design, another for implementation, another for testing, and so on, with no real feedback between teams. But this approach assumes that you can not only correctly identify problems and solutions, but also communicate these in exactly the right way to trigger the right behavior in others. 

Some projects can work with this approach, or at least come close enough. But others are addressing "wicked problems" where any solution affects the perceived requirements in unpredictable ways. Our only hope in these situations is to intervene in some way, get feedback, and go from there.

Some teams can (or try to) create a big static backlog at the start of a project, then measure burndown until those items are all done. But this doesn't work well when feedback is needed.


Negotiable stories help even in ambiguous situations; we can work with high-level descriptions early, and build details as we go. By starting with stories at a high level, expanding details as necessary, and leaving room to adjust as we learn more, we can more easily evolve to a solution that balances all our needs.  

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