Demonstrate the Power of Acceptance Criteria by Drawing a House

Some while ago, while thinking of a quick and easy way to demonstrate the power of acceptance criteria, I devised this small activity that explains the concept. The activity is interactive and takes about 20 minutes to complete, including the discussion. All you need are some pens and paper and, for a little more dramatic effect, a flip chart — but that is not essential.

If you want to explain acceptance criteria, then this activity gets across the concept very well in a simple, straightforward, and powerful way. I have run this activity in the U.K. numerous times, as well as in Switzerland, and it has worked in both locations successfully.

Let me explain how to run the activity. If you want to simply yet powerfully demonstrate acceptance criteria, try it out for yourself.

First, let me start with some background. When I was at school, all of my classmates were always sketching outline drawings of houses on paper or in their exercise books. So I decided to use a simple house drawing to explain the concept of acceptance criteria. In the U.K., most houses are of a similar style, and I expect that the style I draw is one you can use in many locations. If you don’t feel this style will work for you, however, feel free to alter your house to a sketch of one that will work in your location.

I start the exercise by asking the group whether, when at school, they drew houses in their schoolbooks. When you pose this question people will generally nod their heads in agreement. Then simply say, “OK, take some paper and a pen and just sketch me out a house.” Most people will now start to draw their house; some people will ask questions about what the house should be like, but simply say, “Just draw me a house.”

While they are doing this, draw your own house on a piece of paper or a flip chart sheet, making sure that no one else can see it.

I draw my house like this:


When everyone has finished, walk around and see what they have drawn. No one will have drawn what you have done, so as you go around say things such as, “Nice house — but not what I wanted,” or “How very artistic — but unfortunately not the house that I wanted.” You can make this very lighthearted, but essentially reject all of the houses as not being the house you were looking for.

Once you have been around the room, tell everyone that you need them to write down what you are now about to say, and say the following:

  • There is a door on the lower floor in the middle of the house.
  • On each side of the door there is a window.
  • On the upper floor, there are three windows evenly spaced across the house.
  • The house has a pitched roof.
  • There is a chimney.
  • The house has a garage.
  • The house has a fence around a garden.
  • The fence has a gate.
  • There is a path from the door of the house to the gate.
  • The garden has a tree.

Now ask your group to draw the house again.

When they have finished, turn around your flip chart (I find the flip chart works well and there is an element of a magic trick when you turn it around and reveal your house), and then ask them whether their house looks like yours. You will find that they will all have drawn a house that’s very similar, and in some instances it will be almost exactly the same. Now you can go around the room and check the houses and, where they have met your acceptance criteria, you can say, “Yes, I can accept that house; that is what I wanted.” If someone has missed something, you can reject it and explain why. If people have drawn what you wanted but added to it, then discuss this as gold-plating of your requirement.

Sometimes before revealing my house, I throw in a reference to Derren Brown (TV magician, cold reader, and lots of other stuff), or throw in your own local magician who does similar things. I say, “Did I subliminally make you draw what I wanted? You do realize that I trained him.” And then, of course, add, “I’m only joking. Maybe I simply got what I wanted by giving you a set of acceptance criteria.”

We can now debrief on the activity. Explain that through using a set of ten specific bullet points and statements, I got exactly what I wanted. Ask whether you told them how to draw the house. The answer is no, so again restate, “I even got what I wanted without telling you how to do it.” You may find some people draw the tree or garage or chimney on the opposite side to you, so explain that you don’t actually care; in this instance what’s important is that you have them — it’s not important exactly where they are.

You can also go on to explain that when using acceptance criteria with user stories and in the context of software development, you can use tools to automate these acceptance criteria as tests. Therefore you build up an automated regression test pack that will tell you whenever you deviate from the requirements. State the fact that the acceptance criteria are your requirements, and they just happen to be requirements that you can use to test your software and then to automate your tests.

You can now explain how you used the acceptance criteria to verify that you got what you wanted.

Now move the debrief onto how you can use the acceptance criteria to scope your story. Pose this question: “I have given you my acceptance criteria and have asked you how much it is to build my house. You tell me £1 million and I say, ‘That is too much. I only have £900,000. What can I do to reduce the scope of the my house?’” The group will give you answers such as, “Remove the garage and the tree.” You can now ask the question, “What could I do to increase scope of my house?” You will get answers such as, “Build a double garage,” etc. You can also use this to discuss how you can change the scope of a story to take into account time. “How long it will take? I don’t have that much time. What can I do to get it earlier?”

You can now make the point that not only are acceptance criteria your requirements that can be used for tests, and not only can they control the scope of your story, but they can also control the behavior that you expect to see (such as whether the garage should be to the right of the house).

Finally, you can ask the group the general question about how they feel about this. Do they find it powerful? Most people are amazed and surprised by the simplicity and the power of acceptance criteria.

So that is how I run the activity. I have run this many times with many people and have always found it to work well.

Why don’t you give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

Why business needs our education system to nurture and support creativity

In the UK at present there is a drive by the government back to very traditional schooling methods with the focus being a return to learning by rote and a focus of learning based on the theory of subjects with the assumption that to be creative you must first understand the theory.  The secretary of state for education in the UK Michael Gove recently said the following.

About English he said “creativity depends on mastering certain skills and acquiring a body of knowledge before being able to give expression to what’s in you … You cannot be creative unless you understand how sentences are constructed, what words mean and how to use grammar.”

Regarding mathematics he said “unless children are introduced to that stock of knowledge, unless they know how to use numbers with confidence, unless multiplication, long division, become automatic processes, they won’t be able to use mathematics creatively … to make the discoveries which are going to make our lives better in the future”.

And on music he says “you need first of all to learn your scales. You need to secure a foundation on which your creativity can flourish.”

Let’s think about this for a second, and consider these comments, do you think they are correct?  I certainly don’t.  You don’t need to “master certain skills” in English for example to be creative and you certainly don’t need to understand scales to be musically creative, just like you don’t need to understand or master brush technique to produce a creative piece of art.

Did the person or persons who invented the wheel understand mathematics or physics to produce something so creative, I doubt this very much.  Go and tell Lionel Richie that he can’t be creative because he cannot read music.

Therefore in my view to be creative and creativity itself is not dependent on being a master of certain techniques or skills, in fact if you are first of all creative and are inspired to be so then you may have the desire and inclination to go deeper into a subject to master these skills.

So if we persist with the current government thinking then we will most likely stifle creativity in our young people and kill it off in them completely.  What we need is people leaving schools and universities with creative skills and the desire to be creative just like we need them to be team orientated, this is another problem with schools and universities which is a focus on the individual with little regard to focus on working within teams which of course is exactly what we want in the work place, but that is another topic.

So what has all of this got to do with software development and in particular software development in an agile context?

Well first of all software development is a creative process and it is knowledge work, it is probably as far away from engineering as you can get which was an unfortunate choice of word that was chosen to describe software development, we are not software engineers we are closer to software artists.

To produce the best software our teams need to be creative in everything they do and furthermore when we ask our teams to inspect and adapt their process we are asking them to be creative and to have fresh thinking in resolving problems and improving themselves and their processes, we expect the same when we inspect and adapt our product, we want fresh ideas, we want creativity.  Creativity allows the best processes and the best products to emerge and flourish, and it is this creativity that will ultimately give organisations the competitive edge.

What we need is software development teams that are creative, expect to be creative, want to be creative and are not afraid to be creative; if this is ingrained in them we will get the best results.  Yes of course we also need these people to be highly skilled but highly skilled people without creativity will not produce much of value or use, it is creativity that sets our best products and our best teams apart.

So we now come full circle, if our education system stifles creativity and places sole emphasis on skills and learning by rote then new people coming into the work place will feel that they are not creative and they will not have the confidence to be creative, if we are to be successful as teams and organisations it is creativity that will make us so, without creativity we are doomed to fail and therefore we need an education system that supports and nurtures creativity and not one that kills and stifles it.

An education system that kills and stifles creativity is not a good place for businesses to be in, businesses can only succeed with creativity at the centre of what they do and therefore an education system that supports this is of paramount importance.

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