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The Agile Business Case

Many agile teams have never seen a business case, ever, and they may even be proud of it.

    Our mantra is that we deliver "business value," not just "software," quicker, better, and faster, but if so, we certainly don't spend a lot of time reporting on value delivery, and in fact we may be scornful about "analysis paralysis."  As software developers, we consider ourselves to be doing quite well if we can deliver the software every two weeks (or continuously).  And this is particularly if we've enabled this frequent high-quality delivery through automated testing and automated build-and-release techniques.  We've reduced business risk by making results visible more often, and allowing the business to change direction more frequently.  We assert that along the way of course we're also delivering value.  But how would we prove it?

    I've recently posited that we shouldn't even think of doing agile projects without capturing and recording story value points during iterations.  But this is only one piece of a larger puzzle.  From a business value point of view, we have five main opportunities to identify business value and tune projects to deliver on it faster, better, and cheaper.
    1. At investment time:  "Someone from the business" (let's call her the "product owner") makes the business decision to start the project and ponies up money for it.  <== We can optimize project value here by ensuring the project is based on some actual business case whose predictions are quantifiable in some way, and can be measured during and beyond project delivery.
    2. During story creation:  At a project's inception, a product backlog or master story list is built, outlining the pieces of business functionality to be written in sentences in the format "as a <>, I need <>, so that <>" <== We can maximize value here by ensuring stories are indeed designed to capture individual pieces of valuable functionality, and that value is captured at analysis time.  I'm frightened to report that I've had the business owner of a project create stories like: "as the system, I need a user interface layer, so that I can input and output values to the database."  Creating stories which capture end-to-end business value in small pieces is very hard to do in practice.
    3. During story prioritization:  The product owner prioritizes the stories (a process which can be repeated before each iteration, as the business climate changes) <== We can and should insist that we have a full product backlog which is being revisited by the business owners of the initiative before every iteration, and we should be keeping tabs on what has actually been delivered, as it is delivered.
    4. While we are delivering the software every two weeks (or continuously)! <== If we were using techniques such as a "value burn-up" as opposed to an "effort burn-up," we could actually see the value accruing over the course of the project.  We should do this!
    5. As the business collects returns on the investment:  the new software translates into some actual benefit for the business (the business sells the software, or the software improves the business's operation in some key way). <== If long-term statistics on ROI are collected, we could quantify actual delivered value over time.
    In our Agile IT writings and trainings, we tend to relegate steps 1, 2, 3, and 5 to specialized "product owner" or "business analysis" functions which require "soft skills."  Often we decide to put our training dollars into learning how to do pair programming, automated testing, or continuous release management, and we simply decide to let the business carry on as it always has.  I think this is a mistake.  At the end of the day, we're not paid to deliver software--we're paid to deliver value.  It's not just strategically superior for us to insist on meticulously optimizing and measuring the value our projects deliver--in a tough economy, it's simple self-preservation.

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