Agile User Story Decomposition: Let Nature Be Your Teacher

I stand alone on a narrow, heavily worn pebbled path, overlooking a waterfall dropping onto a sandy beach 80 feet below me. It is early in the morning, and I am the first person down the short coastal trail to McWay falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, California.

Image of waterfall at rocky beachThe world before me consists of brilliant sky blues, green and blue crashing ocean surf, rock cliffs soaring from the ocean floor, stiff clean winds, and windblown dark green evergreen trees lining the rugged coast. As I stand dumbfounded by what I witness, I am struck by the swirling effervescence and beauty of it all. I have traveled frequently and far, and during my short time on earth I have smelled the scent of pine trees along the western Canadian coastal trail. I have seen dazzling fields of delicate flowers in the Swiss Alps, and I have heard and felt the crash of thunderous waves on the coast of Eastern Australia. What I experience at McWay falls will also remain with me forever.

McWay falls did not always tumble onto a sand beach. As recently as 1983, the waterfall fell directly into the Pacific ocean. At the end of McWay trail is information on the history of the area and falls, along with pre and post 1983 waterfall photographs. The information states that due to the 1983 landslide the falls now tumble onto the beach, and not the ocean. I look at the pre and post photographs to review the differences. The problem is, I do not see any change to the landscape other than the falls now tumble onto a sandy beach, where before the falls tumbled into the ocean. I feel like I am playing one of those picture games you get at roadside diners, where they show you two pictures and ask what the differences are; two chickens instead of three chickens standing by the barn. I would expect to see significant cliff or vegetative damage to the falls area if a landslide caused the falls to shift from an ocean to beach landing zone, but I see no changes other than the falls now land on a beach. How could a landslide change a waterfall to land on the beach, yet not cause significant landscape deformation? I am totally puzzled.

Finally, I get it. The 1983 landslide did not occur at this location, but shortly up the coast. Boulders started the landslide as they fell from high cliffs, which then caused massive rocks to tumble down and wipe out the Pacific Coast highway. As the landslide progressed, pebbles and sand were also created and forced down the slopes into the shallow depths of the ocean. Wind, waves, and storms forced the migration of the sand from the landslide area to the location of the present day waterfall. The sandy beach that now serves as the landing pad for the waterfall was created as a result of the landslide further up the coast.

Sometimes, I run into Microsoft Dynamics NAV implementation teams that are perplexed by how user stories are created, in the same manner that I was perplexed by how the sandy beach came to be at the waterfall. Teams look at only the sand on the beach in very narrow terms, and do not think about the landscape and how the sand might have been created through alternative means. Sand at the beach was created as a result of falling boulders from high on the cliffs down the coast, which broke and formed rocks. Ultimately, the rocks were pounded into sand on the coast by the ocean at the base of the cliffs. In essence, nature created the sandy beach by decomposing the landscape, starting with large boulders at the top of the cliff.

Implementation teams need to think about crafting user stories the same way nature creates sand; start with boulder sized user stories high up at the beginning of the project, and continue to break down the stories during the lifecycle of the project, until the stories are sand sized. Sand sized user stories can be acted upon in a sprint and are easier for teams to size accurately.

After spending much time viewing the waterfall, I walk back up the rugged trail to the secluded parking lot tucked away up a narrow canyon. I stop underneath the shaded spread of a large coastal pine at the start of the trail. Walking toward me from the parking lot is a young lady dressed for a day hike. She stops and asks me “Is the waterfall this way down the trail”? I answer “yes, it most certainly is”. Watching her enthusiastically turn down the trail and knowing the delight she will soon encounter, I cannot help but remember a quote by William Wordsworth: “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.”