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.

The Quest For High Performance

I originally wrote this article as a blog following some work I had done with Lyssa Adkins in a coaching circle and then putting this into practice with a new team that I was working with.  Having reviewed it I decided that I would seek publication on the Scrum Alliance website and they kindly obliged.

This article is summarised as follows:

“One of the best ways to ensure that a team grows to be high performing is to get them off to the right start.   Read on to learn two team start-up activities that focus on process and help ensure everyone is on the same page from the beginning.”

Find the full article here

The ballpoint game, with a twist

Many of you reading this maybe familiar with the ballpoint game.  For those of you who are not then it is a simple game that can be used to demonstrate scrum.

The basic rules are that you need to pass a ball from one person to another and it must go through every ones hands in the team with air time.  The ball must not be passed to your immediate neighbour and you must pass it one ball at a time, there can be many balls at the starting point but the ball must start with a designated starter and end with a designated finisher back at the same starting point.  Any ball that goes through the team without being dropped counts as one ball point.

You allow the team 1 minute to plan how they do it and provide an estimate of how many times they will be able to successfully complete a cycle in 2 minutes, they then get on and do it.

When they have completed the 2 minutes allow them time to re-plan and then iterate.  I do this 3 times.

This exercise covers the basics of scrum

  • Product owner sets the objectives and goals
  • The team understand and ask questions
  • The team plan how they will do it and estimate
  • The team implement the plan
  • A retrospective is conducted

For more detail see this link for details of the game by Boris Gloger

Now sometime ago on the yahoo scrum board when we were discussing games Angela Druckman said she added an extra iteration into the plan called the bonus round.

This was to make up a number of times that you have had one team complete the pass of balls and ask the team to try to beat it.  This number is of course fictional and much larger than the teams best in the previous 3 rounds but it is there to demonstrate to the course attendees the impact on the team being set an unrealistic challenge with constraints placed on them that they have no way to alter or influence, with unrealistic expectations being set and no buy in from the team.  This could of course be likened to teams having a software schedule forced upon them.

Now I have run this a number of times but never before had one that demonstrated the point so well as I had on the course that I run yesterday.

The team started to plan for 1 minute and got nowhere, they then started their 2 minutes and still got nowhere spending their time talking about how they might do it and second by second falling into more panic, chaos and disarray, it really was beautiful to watch, in a nice way that is knowing that the whole intention of this part of the exercise was to illicit this exact response.  The number of balls completed through the cycle was zero.

When I asked the team to reflect on what had happened they picked up on the key points that the exercise was there to create and it really did bring home the negative impact that setting unrealistic expectations, constraints they could not influence or alter and the fact they were set targets that they had no buy in too can do to a team.

If you ever run the ball point game or are thinking about doing it consider adding in this twist, you might be surprised with the results.

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