Context can make all the difference

During a recent Agile training session that I ran, I played one of my favourite exercises with the group – the celebrity cruise ship prioritisation game. For those unfamiliar with the game, the group are presented with a dozen different celebrities who are all on a sinking cruise ship. A single lifeboat can carry one celebrity to safety at a time, and so the group must prioritise these celebrities in some order to decide who gets saved.

The trick is to use a mixture of male, female, young, old, controversial and acclaimed celebrities so that there is no easy way to sort them, often leaving the group in heated debates about the importance of one person over the next. Without giving the group any sort of sorting value (for example, by age) the results can be very interesting and wildly different each time you play the game based on peoples opinions of the celebrities.

Which celebrity has more value?

Which celebrity has more value?

As I knew I was running the same training session in both Cardiff and London, I thought I’d add some regional influence into the mix in the shape of Welsh singing legend, Tom Jones and English football star, Wayne Rooney. I wondered if the two different groups would view them differently because of their national importance.

My pre-training predictions were that the group in Cardiff would put more value on Jones than Rooney. Sure enough, the Cardiff group held Jones in extremely high regard but didn’t really care for Rooney. Surprisingly, however, a week later (and when England had been eliminated from the World Cup), the London group treated Rooney with similar disregard, many commenting on his lacklustre performances in an England shirt.

Perhaps if the same exercise had been run whilst England were still involved in the World Cup and Rooney had scored a hattrick just the day before, the results would’ve been different?

What it did highlight was that context can have a greater influence on the daily decisions we make than we might originally think, especially when prioritising items. We already know that not all project based decisions can be based purely on fact and can often be subjective.

Add in the context bias and it should reinforce why regular backlog grooming is absolutely vital for a healthy Agile project. No matter how much you and your Product Owner think you know about the contents of your backlog, be very aware that what seemed like an absolute high priority last week could now be less important, given its context against the world around it.

It’s just another reason why a more Agile approach to software development should be favoured over waterfall methodologies. Context can change with the flip of a switch. The industry can shift almost instantly and we should be able to shift with it, rather than be locked into a development cycle based entirely off a rigid technical specification document. To use the Rooney example again, it would be a crying shame to continue development on “Wayne Rooney’s World Cup Soccer” iPhone app given his current perceived value amongst his fellow patriots. Using iterative development, we can just swap out the England star to someone who plays for Brazil in the next release.