The Question Card Technique

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Teams often need to discover the right way to solve a problem before embarking on the solution itself.  The “R” in Research and Development is why many of us got into this line of work.  Scrum is a powerful technique for producing functional software quickly and efficiently, but how does it handle the problem of research?

Scrum teams have a lot of pressure on them to produce working software.  Often the pressure is applied by the team itself in the sprint planning meeting, but it is there nonetheless.  In my experience, teams often agree to stories without fully understanding the implications of their commitment or how the work will be accomplished.  Although this is understandable to a point, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the team understood the overall design approach from the very beginning? Here is one technique to lessen the uncertainty of implementation details.

Question Cards

Add a special card to your Scrum board.  This is not a user story or a piece of functionality, so it helps to make it visually distinct from the standard work items on the board.  You can even make it a special colored card marking it as a piece of developer candy.  This is a question card and that is what we find on it when we read it: a question.  To mark this card complete, the owner of the card must be able to answer the question on the card.  Typical questions might read similar to these:

“What portal framework will we use in building the new customer web site?”

“Which ORM mapper will we use for the upcoming XML Editor project?”

“Is Ruby performant enough to be our platform for the new CRM?”

“How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

Question cards essentially represent mini-architectural spikes to occur within the context of Scrum and to be performed by members of the Scrum team.  This is a way to allow team members to get some of the “R” in R&D.  Answers may be provided in whatever format is required of the question.  Maybe the product owner who wrote the question needs a document detailing a design approach for a customer.  Maybe all that is needed is a verbal, “Yes, that will work.”  Do what make sense.

The relentless pace of Scrum can cause us to feel like we are constantly tactical.  Sometimes it helps to look a little beyond the iteration boundary and question cards are a fun technique for accomplishing this.

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