Very often, it can be smart to be stupid. Let me explain …

We have to do it all …

Quite often, the people who ask us to build something have a huge list of “requirements”. We know they aren’t going to get all their requirements, because there isn’t the time or money to do everything, and they’ve surely asked for everything they could think of. They do this for some good reasons:

  • They think they may never get another chance to ask for things
  • They aren’t really sure what’s important
  • They are trying to placate a lot of stakeholders

Be that as it may, they’re not going to get it all, and yet when we push back, they’ll probably insist that they have to have it all.

Now Scrum demands that the Product Owner be responsible for getting the best possible ROI for the team’s time. That really means that the PO needs to select stories to do, and stories to defer until later, if later ever comes. But sometimes we have a PO with no authority, or a PO who hasn’t learned their job yet.

How do we break that log-jam? Here’s a trick I accidentally learned years ago and it has served me often. We’ll have a little conversation, with story cards laid out on a table:

Team: “Which of these shall we do in the next Sprint?”

PO: “Doesn’t matter, I have to have them all.”

Team: “Well, we may not get them all, so which is most important?”

PO: “They’re all important.”

This can go on for quite a while. One day I did this: I looked at the story cards and picked one that was obviously stupid. Something like “allow the hourglass sand to be different colors for holiday seasons”. Really dumb. There are always really dumb stories.

So I picked up that card, held it up, then put it at the front of the line and said: “OK let’s do this one first.”

Immediately, the PO said “NOT THAT ONE!!!”

Then we could begin to have a conversation about what we should really do, and the PO was on their way to learning their job, which is to select what to do next.

There’s no way to do this in two weeks …

I do a similar thing in early days with a team who thinks that their domain is special and that they can’t possibly have a product increment or feature, or whatever, in two weeks.

For a while, I coach them, cajole them, and so on. Sometimes someone will come up with an idea. Often they do not.

Well, I’m not afraid to seem stupid. (I think that’s because I’m so obviously not stupid, but it could just be that I’m used to being stupid.) So I’ll come up with some stupid idea that could actually work but is really stupid.

One time, talking about how you couldn’t possibly do pay-per-view in two weeks, it went like this:

Team: “Pay per view is hard. You have to set up a hidden channel for each movies, start the movie, keep track of where it is, get the people’s account to charge, blah blah on and on all the stuff you have to do. You can’t possible do a small version of that in two weeks.””

Ron: “Before you had pay-per-view, did you have the ability to show movies on a numbered channel?”

Team: “Of course. We do that all the time.”

Ron: “So how about if we just start playing Men in Black on channel 4321, run it 24-7 and whenever anyone wants a pay per view movie, they call us up and we charge their account and tell them to tune to 4321. Then next Sprint maybe two movies, or maybe we start the movie after they ask.”

Everyone looked at me as if i were a genius. Or as if I were stupid – it’s hard to tell the difference. There was a long silence. Then one of the team members said:

“Well, that wouldn’t work, but what you could do …”

Then we could begin to have a conversation about what to do and how to do it.

TL;DR

To move from “impossible” to “how shall we do this”, often it’s enough to put a stupid idea out there. Few people can resist explaining how to make it better. You just have to not mind looking stupid. With enough practice you can be really stupid, like me, and after a while you get used to it. Give it a try!


Note: This is surely a variation on Kent Beck’s famous question, “What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?” which I have often perverted to “Do the simplest thing that could possibly work.” I say “do” instead of “what is”, because I expect we’ll learn something from the actual doing.