What's Going Right Around Here?

Using AI to Improve Your Agile Requirements Process
Instead of focusing on the problems, focus on what works. That is the simple premise of "appreciative inquiry." In this week's column, Ellen Gottesdiener explains how to help your team focus on the processes that work by outlining what should be included in your appreciative inquiries, in order to make more positive organizational changes.

"Adam, I appreciate you for tracking down the regulation implications of the disability refund story," Sarah said. "It didn't even occur to me we'd have to build in some tests for auditing. You saved us time, no doubt, by being ready to describe that to us during the iteration-planning workshops."

Now Ryan spoke up. 'I appreciate you, Nora, for putting together that grid showing how the features and events in the release plan are aligned to our iteration-level stories. As product owner, that helps me to decide how to chop up the stories and also prioritize them."

"Mia, I appreciate you for researching the data attributes we'd need for that refund story,' Amy added.

What prompted all these positive comments-and all this learning-from a group whose agile project was floundering only two weeks earlier?

Getting Unstuck
We were in the midst of our team's iteration retrospective workshop for an agile project and were wrapping up the session with a short retrospective. Instead of focusing on the problems we had experienced and how to fix them, I suggested that we begin by expressing appreciation related to agile requirements practices team members had noticed during the iteration.

My reasoning? The team had decided (in the last iteration retrospective) they needed to take action to improve their agile requirements practices, and we wanted to find out what was working. So, out of my facilitator's toolkit I pulled a technique called appreciative inquiry (AI).

I set the stage with the team by asking, "Recall times during the iteration when you felt we really connected with doing our requirements in an agile way. You knew we had done 'just enough.' You were in sync with Jane [our product owner] about the business value of the story. You could define story 'doneness' and effectively task out the story."

I paused for some fifteen seconds to let this sink in and then continued, "Please name the person and her action in the form of an appreciation. For example, 'Heidi, I appreciate you for ...'" Once we got started, everyone participated, and the group jump-started the next iteration.

How It Works
When you use AI, you look for what works in an organization, project, team, or event. You use that positive core as the basis for sustenance and change. AI is based on well-documented research and numerous case studies but is essentially an organizational change method.

When you inquire into moments when the team members had great success, you harvest what people know, and you learn how to repeat those moments. So, rather than asking, "What are our problems?" you ask, "What is working around here?"

The AI method has four phases: discovery, dream, design, and destiny. These phases are based on selecting an affirmative topic of choice. I won't explain the entire methodology in this article (see the references section for more information). Instead, let's look at how you can use aspects of the first phase, discovery, to improve your practices and enhance team cohesion. One way is to use appreciative interviews, followed by discovering themes and then action planning.

The Appreciative Interview
The first step of AI's discovery phase is to find out what works. On one agile team, team members grouped themselves in pairs, asking each other appreciative questions using a short interview protocol (details below). Next, we shared findings as a team, wrote down themes we discovered that were consistent across the team, and decided which agile requirements practices and activities we wanted to continue using.

At the end of the fourth iteration, the team decided to improve how agile requirements were working. Specifically,

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