Splitting stories like a journalist

When people are new to (agile) software development, I have found that splitting stories can be a confusing and difficult exercise for many. Splitting (also synonymous with slicing) stories is the activity of dividing stories too big for effective development into new, smaller, stories.

Many good techniques and tips for splitting stories exists already (some linked to at the end of this post). Yet, I’d like to introduce a simple alternative to splitting stories, that doesn’t care about story formats, software development terms, and other jargon.

Splitting stories using the Five Ws and How on the story’s solution, problem, and context.

“The Five Ws (sometimes referred to as Five Ws and How, 5W1H, or Six Ws) are questions whose answers are considered basic in information gathering or problem solving. They are often mentioned in journalism, research and police investigations.”

Five Ws – Wikipedia

Splitting stories like a journalist is asking questions, using the the Five Ws and How, to learn more about a story and expand our thinking about how it can be divided into smaller stories. The questions all start with either What, Why, When, Where, Who, or How.

Example: “Formatting toolbar”

To demonstrate how this might work, we’ll continue with an example.

  • What is the story about?”
    • “Oh, it’s a formatting toolbar. You know, like the one in Microsoft Word. Our users want to style their texts in different ways.”
  • Why do you users want to style their texts in different ways?”
    • “To improve readability and communication with their readers.”
  • What kind of different ways?”
    • “Well, we’re thinking a few. Making the text bold, in italics, different colors, and highlight words and phrases. That last one is often wished for by many.”
  • Who exactly wishes for highlighting of words and phrases?”
    • “That would be the editors. They want to be able to highlight certain words and phrases so that they more easily can provide feedback.”
  • Who are the other users?”
    • “The writers, of course!
  • How would writers like to style their text?”
    • “It’s the writers whom asked for being able to make their text in italics, and sometimes bold. To emphasize certain words, dialogue, and so on.”
  • When would our users use the formatting toolbar?”
    • “Writers use our service night and day. You never know when they get the inspiration for their next masterpiece. Editors, they’d would use it at work.”
  • Where are they using our service?”
    • Writers use all our applications. Editors, they only use it from their desktop computers at work. They don’t really care about the mobile app or web.”

What we learned from our questions

Alright. Before we continue, let’s take a look at what we’ve learnt already:

  • There are two kinds of users for the formatting toolbar: writers and editors.
  • Writers and editors both need styling options, but different actual options.
  • Writers use the service provided day and night, from anywhere.
  • Editors, however, only use the desktop app.

What’s next?

That should give you an idea about how the Five Ws and How can be used to explore and expand our understanding of a story. From this short conversation there’s already quite a few opportunities for splitting the original story, “formatting toolbar”, to smaller stories, which we then can ship one after another.

Since there’s also, in this example, fewer styling alternatives needed for each kind of user. A toolbar might even not be needed. Maybe there’s a simpler user interface that is available now that we don’t need as many styling options.

I hope that gave some ideas of how you can work with dividing stories into smaller stories. And when you’re ready to level up your game, I suggest you use the same questions on the story’s problem statement and context as well, and not just on the proposed solution.

If you have any story splitting techniques or tips to share. Please do, below in the comments.

5 inspiring, and useful, reads for entrepreneurs and alike

A few days ago me and my wife bought a new bookshelf, which lead to an hour or so of reorganizing our books. During this hour of seeing all these great books we have, I got the idea of sharing some books I consider worthwhile for entrepreneurs and alike. This article is the result of that idea.

The books mentioned in this article are:

  1. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action
  2. Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice
  3. Talking to Humans: Success starts with understanding your customers
  4. ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever
  5. Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: The Easy Way to Do More in Less Time
  6. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers (yep, this is a bonus outside of the five books promised in the title)

I’ve tried to have the books complemented each other, so the order does matter. And I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations below.

Start With why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action

“Image a world where we wake up inspired to go work” is one of Simon Sinek’s catchphrases, and it’s a powerful one. Imagine being an entrepreneur and not feeling this way. Imagine having rallied people to join your cause and then they don’t feel inspired.

This is why I recommend this book first. You need to be able to answer why you get up in the morning and why your initiative exists — for yourself, and so you can inspire others with your why.


Competing against luck: The story of innovation and customer choice

How can we create products that we are sure customers want to buy? Can innovation be more than a game of hit and miss? Or, as I’ve written about before: How sure are you that you’re building the right product?

Clay Christensen, and senior partner David Duncan and their coauthors, offer a new perspective on how companies can develop and market products and services that customers actually want and need.


Talking to humans: Success starts with under understanding your customers

Without customers there is no business; or … “the purpose of a business is to create a customer” as Peter Drucker said. With that in mind, the following snippet from the foreword, by Steve Blanc, describe Talking to Humansbrilliantly:

“In a comprehensive, yet concise and accessible manner, Talking to Humans teaches you how to get out of the building. It guides students and entrepreneurs through the critical elements: how to find interview candidates, structure and conduct effective interviews and synthesize your learning. Giff provides ample anecdotes as well as useful strategies, tactics and best practices to help you hit the ground running in your customer discovery interviews.”


Rework: Change the way you work forever

If you’re starting a company in 2018, I believe it is important to not think that things should/need to be done the way they have “always” been done. Rework is a playbook for anyone who’s ever dreamed about doing it on their own. It will inspire you, challenge you, and give advice you haven’t heard before.

“First, we’ll start out by gutting business. We’ll take it down to the studs and explain why it’s time to throw out the traditional notions of what it takes to run a business. Then we’ll rebuild it. You’ll learn how to begin, why you need less than you think, when to launch, how to get the word out, whom (and when) to hire, and how to keep it all under control.”

And if Rework isn’t enough to satisfy your appetite, have a look at their other books Getting RealRemote, and It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.


Pomodoro technique illustrated: The easy way to do more in less time

Even when you know your why and feel inspired more than anything else, it’s still hard — sometimes, most of the time — to get things done, especially the right things done.

I could’ve recommended David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done here, but I choose to recommend Staffan Noteberg’s book Pomodoro Technique Illustratedinstead for several reasons: 1) it’s super easy to get started with, 2) it has depth — both in ways to improve on your technique and in the scientific research that backs it up, 3) it’s a technique that has helped me and my spouse throughout the years.


The hard thing about hard things: Building a business when there are no easy answers

The title of this post says inspiring books, something the title and contents of this particular book may not match on too, and yes … I said five. Consider Ben Horowitz book The Hard Thing About Hard Things a bonus. It’s not for everyone and it might not be as relevant right away as the others.

But, Ben Horowitz has succeeded in writing a book about entrepreneurship and running a company that is highly entertaining, inspiring, and helpful.

Ben’s own introduction says it all, and it’s immediately obvious why the book had to be written:

“Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, ‘That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.’ The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.”

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Oh, and for me personally, the section on one-on-one’s — or the employee’s meeting — makes the read as a whole worth it. Even if you don’t buy this book, I wholeheartedly recommend reading up on one-on-one’s.


I hope you enjoyed this list, and I now invite you to share your recommended reads for entrepreneurs and alike in the comments.

How sure are you that you’re building the right product?

For the last decade we’ve learned how to build products the right way. That’s great. It’s now time to ask: are we building the right products?

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Peter Drucker

If I were to ask you how sure you are that you’re building the right product — or feature — right now, chances are that you’re quite confident. You’ve done your research, talked to customers, talked to your team, and know the technology.

But what if I tell you that one third of what we build fail to show value. Another third has a negative impact on the value. And the last third may have a somewhat positive effect towards what you aimed for.

These numbers may not apply to you, but they did apply to Microsoft in 2009 (Online Experimentation at Microsoft). And I believe that says something.

With that in mind …

… let’s make a bet¹. How much are you willing to bet that what you’re building right now will show the value you hope for? Your lunch? That’s probably fine. What about a week of vacation? Or your car? Maybe your house even? Not enough? Alright, let’s bet your retirement savings.

Maybe now you’ve started to falter in your conviction that what you’re building absolutely will bring about the desired value. Personally, I’d say that’s a pretty good place to be. In the complexity of building products for other people we shouldn’t be too sure (and assume) that we’re on the right path.

So what can we do?

Experiment of course! List your assumptions, figure out what you need to learn, what decisions you need to make, what information you need to make decisions, and start experiments to get those answers, lower risk, and raise your true confidence.

I won’t go the details of experiments and learning activities in this post, but talk to your colleagues — chances are that someone knows something. That, or have a look at buying Strategyzer’s book Value Proposition Design. Tobias Fors’ Product Owner course bring up a few examples, and Jeff Patton’s talk Thud: Why it’s not failure you should be afraid of maps some activities to your level of confidence or risk.


1. Thank you, Jeff Patton, for the betting examples.