Agile

Sprint Planning Sucks. Can It Be Fixed?

Warning: This article contains strong opinions that might not be suitable for all audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

It’s Monday morning. After an all-too-short weekend and rush hour traffic, you finally arrive at the office. You throw your bag down at your desk, run to the break room, and queue up for coffee. As the next pot is brewing, you check your phone. It’s 8:44am… now 8:45am, and DING! A meeting reminder appears:

Sprint Planning – 9am to 3pm.

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What’s your visceral reaction?

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I can’t tell you mine, because I won’t put profanity on my blog.

Real Talk

In the capital-A Agile Scrum process, sprint planning is the kick-off meeting for the next iteration. The whole team comes together to talk about features, size work items with points, and commit to deliverables for the next “sprint” (typically 2 weeks long). Idealistically, team members collaborate freely as they learn about product needs and give valued input.

Let’s have some real talk, though: sprint planning sucks. Maybe that’s a harsh word, but, if you’re reading this article, then it caught your attention. Personally, my sprint planning experiences have been lousy. Why? Am I just bellyaching, or are there some serious underlying problems?

Sprint planning is a huge time commitment. 9am to 3pm is not an exaggeration. Sprint planning meetings are typically half-day to full-day affairs. Most people can’t stay focused on one thing for that long. Plus, when a sprint is only two weeks long, one hour is a big chunk of time, let alone 3, or 6, or a whole day. The longer the meeting, the higher the opportunity cost, and the deeper the boredom.

Collaboration is a farce. Planning meetings typically devolve into one “leader” (like a scrum master, product owner, or manager) pulling teeth to get info for a pre-determined list of stories. Only two people, the leader and the story-owner, end up talking, while everyone else just stares at their laptops until it’s their turn. Discussions typically don’t follow any routine beyond, “What’s the acceptance criteria?” and, “Does this look right?” with an interloper occasionally chiming in. Each team member typically gets only a few minutes of value out of an hours-long ordeal. That’s an inefficient use of everyone’s time.

No real planning actually happens. These meetings ought to be called “guessing” meetings, instead. Story point sizes are literally made up. Do they measure time or complexity? No, they really just measure groupthink. Teams even play a game called planning poker that subliminally encourages bluffing. Then, point totals are used to guess how much work can be done during the sprint. When the guess turns out to be wrong at the end of the sprint (and it always does), the team berates itself in retro for letting points slip. Every. Time.

Does It Spark Joy?

I’ve long wondered to myself if sprint planning is a good concept just implemented poorly, or if it’s conceptually flawed at its root. I’m pretty sure it’s just flawed. The meetings don’t facilitate efficient collaboration relative to their time commitments, and estimates are based on poor models. Retros can’t fix that. And gut reactions don’t lie.

So, what should we do? Should we Konmari our planning meetings to see if they spark joy? Should we get rid of our ceremonies and start over? Is this an indictment of the whole Agile Scrum process? But then, how will we know what to do, and when things can get done?

I think we can evolve our Agile process with more effective practices than sprint planning. And I don’t think that evolution would be terribly drastic.

Behavior-Driven Planning

What we really want out of a planning meeting is planning, not pulling and not predicting. Planning is the time to figure out what will be done and how it will be done. The size of the work should be based on the size of the blueprint. Enter Example Mapping.

Example Mapping is a Behavior-Driven Development practice for clarifying and confirming stories. The process is straightforward:

  1. Write the story on a yellow card.
  2. Write each rule that the story must satisfy on a blue card.
  3. Illustrate each rule with examples written on green cards.
  4. Got stuck on a question? Write it on a red card and move on.

One story should take about 20-30 minutes to map. The whole team can participate, or the team can split up into small groups to divide-and-conquer. Rules become acceptance criteria, examples become test cases, and questions become spikes.

Here’s a good walkthrough of Example Mapping.

What about story size? That’s easy – count the cards. How many cards does a story have? That’s a rough size for the work to be done based on the blueprint, not bluffing. More cards = more complexity. It’s objective. No games. Frankly, it can’t be any worse that made-up point values.

This is real planning: a blueprint with a course of action.

So, rather than doing traditional sprint planning meetings, try doing Example Mapping sessions. Actually plan the stories, and use card counts for point sizes. Decisions about priority and commitments can happen between rounds of story mapping, too. The Scrum process can otherwise remain the same.

If you want to evolve further, you could eliminate the time boxes of sprints in favor of Kanban. Two-week work item boundaries can arbitrarily fall in the middle of progress, which is not only disruptive to workflow but can also encourage bad responses (like cramming to get things done or shaming for not being complete.) Kanban treats work items as a continuous flow of prioritized work fed to a team in bite-sized pieces. When a new story comes up, it can have its own Example Mapping “planning” meeting. Now, Kanban is not for everyone, but it is popular among post-Agile practitioners. What’s important is to find what works for your team.

Rant Over

I know I expressed strong, controversial opinions in this article. And I also recognize that I’m arguing against bad examples of Agile Scrum. Nevertheless, I believe my points are fair: planning itself is not a waste of time, but the way many teams plan their sprints uses time inefficiently and sets poor expectations. There are better ways to do planning – let’s give them a try!

The Airing of Grievances: Agile

Agile has essentially replaced the Waterfall model as the “right” software development methodology. It’s a really great process when it’s done right, but people ruin it when they do it wrong. And, oh, how badly it can go wrong. I got a lot of problems with bad Agile practices, and now you’re gonna hear about it!

Breaking the Rules

Agile is a lot like the board game Monopoly. The rules are long and complicated, but they are designed to make the game efficient. However, for some reason, everyone insists on making up their own rules for the game, rather than following the official instructions. For example, players won’t put a property up for auction when they land on it and refuse to buy it, or they will build houses before securing a monopoly. Then, as a result, the game goes on forever and loses its fun. In Agile, every organization seems to want to do things their own special way (as many of these grievances describe), and it almost never goes well when they do. The rules are not meant to be broken, and if they are, there will be consequences.

Going Rogue

Agile is meant to keep people focused on the most important tasks. Much time is spent planning and pivoting to stay on top of priorities. Team members should not deviate from committed work. Don’t go rogue! Don’t work on uncommitted tasks! If something is absolutely pressing, then talk with the scrum master to change the commitments.

Teams that are Too Big

How big is your Agile team? If the answer has more than one digit, then the team is too darn big. The ideal size is 5-9 people because communication becomes too hard with more. Large teams just don’t scale – it’s the law of diminishing returns.

Long Meetings

Nobody wants to be stuck in a long, boring meeting. While there are many Agile ceremonies (planning, grooming, stand-up, review, and retrospective), their meetings are meant to be efficient and productive. Stand-ups should be 15 minutes tops – nobody should ever need to give more than three sentences for their status, and nobody really wants to hear anything longer anyway! People should come prepared for planning and grooming so they don’t literally take all day. Demos should be short and sweet. Keep things moving!

Putting People on More Than One Team

Nobody should be cursed to provide deliverables for more than one Agile team. That’s not fair to the individual, who must spend double-duty in meetings, nor is it fair to the teams, who don’t have a dedicated resource for their work. It applies to every role: developer, tester, product owner, or scrum master. It also burns people out very quickly.

Too Many Top Priorities

I was once part of an Agile team where the product owner issued about a dozen “top priorities.” For. Every. Sprint. Our team had no clue what was really important.

Agonizing Over Story Points

Story points are meant to be sizing estimates for velocity. They don’t need to be perfectly accurate. They shouldn’t track hours. Don’t make big fights over it. Don’t go back and change values. Don’t twist planning poker into a political gambit. PLEASE!

Missing User Story Descriptions

The user story is the primary work artifact. It tells how a new feature should work from the perspective of the user… or, at least it should. If your user story contains just one line (like saying “Build the profile page”), then you just might be doing it wrong. Write user stories in the “As a ___, I want ___, so that ___” format, and provide extra descriptions to help the team understand what the story covers. Non-descriptive stories lead to poorly developed features.

Missing Acceptance Criteria

How do we know when a story is complete? If there’s no acceptance criteria, we don’t! Testers also won’t know what to check. Please write helpful acceptance criteria. A bullet list is fine, and Gherkin would be even better.

Not Including Testing and Automation in the Definition of Done

No. No. No. No. No. No. NO! A story is not complete if it is not tested. It must not be accepted without tests passing and automated. Otherwise, be prepared for an avalanche of technical debt as bugs pile up and the team can’t keep up. The premise of Agile is to deliver small, working features in iterations. Testing must be included! Don’t create separate stories for testing. Don’t push it off to the next sprint. If a team cannot get testing done, then perhaps it should increase story point sizings to include testing and/or commit to less work during a sprint.

Blaming QA for Incomplete Stories

I once heard a developer say bluntly to my automation team, “QA is the bottleneck.” Don’t shoot the messenger! Tests fail because the product under test has problems. Many times, testers don’t even receive builds until very late in the sprint. When stories don’t get done, don’t start a blame game – it’s the whole team’s fault. Try shifting left (perhaps by using BDD) or committing to less work per sprint.

Ignoring Technical Debt

Technical debt is the cost of consequences from poor development decisions. Examples may include: using single-threading when multi-threading is needed, avoiding design patterns, and even building up a test automation framework. Product owners don’t seem to like tech debt tasks because they don’t deliver new features. Unfortunately, tech debt will often cripple a team’s ability to deliver new features – pay now or pay later. Don’t ignore tech debt!

Confusing Agile with “Short Waterfall”

Agile is meant to be a process paradigm shift. It is not meant to be a condensed version of the Waterfall model. Sprints should be short. Responsibilities should be shared. Teams should be self-empowered. Break down silos and become truly Agile!

Using “Agile” and “Lean” Interchangeably

The Lean Startup is a methodology for starting a new business using minimal overhead and reacting quickly to lessons learned. It involves using Agile for product development, but it encompasses so much more than just Agile. Don’t use the terms interchangeably! Get on point with your buzzword bingo game.

Misusing the Term “Continuous Integration”

A nightly build is not CI. A weekly regression run is not CI. Manually-triggered tests are not CI. Manual deployments are not CI. Hand-written test reports are not CI. Don’t lie to yourself – CI is continuous integration, and everything must be automatic.

Forcing Scrum When Kanban May Be Better

Scrum is probably the most widely used Agile process, to the point where most people presume “Agile” means “Scrum.” However, Scrum is not appropriate for all teams. Kanban is a much better process when work items must be done “just in time” – like tech support tickets, build deployments, system maintenance, or emergency recoveries. Good candidates for Kanban are IT help desks and DevOps teams. I’ve used Kanban on automation tools/frameworks teams very successfully. Don’t shoehorn everyone into Scrum.

Hanging Agile Manifesto Posters on the Wall

What are you, Communist?

Complaining about Agile

Complaining doesn’t make it better! Honestly, in my experience, the worst complainers are old-school people who just don’t like change. Then, problems become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, they try to break rules and then gripe when things don’t work. If your complaint is about Agile in general, then go take a long, hard look in the mirror. However, if you find a problem in how your team is doing Agile, then bring it up during the retrospective – that’s Agile’s auto-correct mechanism. Complaining for complaint’s sake drags everybody down.

Who Should Lead BDD?

Behavior-driven development offers great benefits: better communication, easier test automation, and higher code quality. There are many ways for a team to start doing BDD, and naturally, someone needs to stand up and lead the effort. In my experience, adopting BDD is its own process. An evangelist converts team leaders, training sessions are given, and Gherkinized acceptance criteria start being automated. However, not everyone will embrace the changes, especially those across different role types. And big changes take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will be a mature, effective BDD process.

This post covers three possible ways to lead BDD adoption, each from one of the Three Amigos roles. Any role can lead the charge, but each will have its unique struggles. These possibilities are advisory but not necessarily prescriptive. If you want to move your team into BDD, use these three approaches as guidelines for crafting a plan that best meets your needs. And, of course, the advice in Winning Support for BDD pertains to all approaches. Furthermore, as you read these approaches, put yourselves in the shoes of roles other than your own, so you can better understand the struggles each role faces.

Note: The approaches below presume that the underlying software development process is Agile Scrum. Nevertheless, they may be tweaked and applied to other processes, like Waterfall or Kanban.

The Starting Point

The starting point for all three approaches below is a “traditional” Agile sprint – one that is not (yet) behavior-driven. Product owners write user stories, developers implement the solutions, and testers test the deliverables. The diagram below shows the the main flow of sprint work in this type of sprint, and it will serve as the basis for illustrating BDD adoption:

Traditional Sprint

The overall flow of a “traditional,” non-behavior-driven Agile sprint. Ceremonies like planning, review, and retrospective should still happen, but the are left out of this diagram to put emphasis on parts affected by BDD.

QA-Led BDD

Circumstances

The most common approach I’ve seen is QA-led BDD adoption, because testers arguably have the most to gain. It is most applicable when the Three Amigos roles (biz, dev, and test) are well-defined and separate. The impetus for QA to lead BDD adoption could be that developers deliver code too late to adequately test and automate within a sprint, or it could be that the QA team is struggling to scale their test automation development. There may also be resistance to BDD from biz and dev roles.

Steps

The sensible path for QA is to start all the way to the right and progressively shift left. This means that the starting point would be test automation. Start by building a solid automation code base. Pick a well-supported BDD framework like Cucumber, SpecFlow, or behave, and start adding scenarios and step definitions. Select scenarios for core product features rather than the latest sprint stories, so that the code base will be populated with the most basic, useful steps. Once the automation code reaches a “critical mass” for step reusability, QA can then proactively classify new test scenarios as automated or manual. Automated tests become easier and easier to write, giving QA more time to be exploratory with manual testing. Ideally, all manual testing would become exploratory.

Then, it’s time to start shifting left. At this point, all Gherkin steps would be in the automation code only, so set up a tool like Pickles to expose the steps to all team members as living documentation. QA should then schedule Three Amigos meetings with biz and dev to proactively discuss user story expectations. In those meetings, QA should start demonstrating how to write acceptance criteria in Gherkin, which then expedites testing. A big win would be if a QA engineer could write a new scenario using only pre-existing, pre-automated steps and then run it successfully on the spot.

Once biz and dev folks are convinced of BDD’s benefits, encourage them to participate in writing Gherkin. When they get comfortable, encourage product owners to write acceptance criteria in Gherkin when they write user stories, and hold Three Amigos meetings before sprint planning as part of grooming. Convince them that for them to help write Gherkin scenarios is a process efficiency for the whole team.

 

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Struggles

Shifting left is never easy, especially when team members are hardened into their roles. That’s why QA must write both really good test automation and really good Gherkin scenarios. Success should speak for itself once QA delivers good automation fast. Furthermore, QA must be clear that BDD is not merely a test tool, it’s a process that requires a paradigm shift. Otherwise, BDD could be easily pigeonholed to be a “QA thing.”

Dev-Led BDD

Circumstances

There are a few reasons that could push developers to lead BDD. On some Agile teams, there’s no distinction between dev and QA roles: all team members are software engineers responsible for both developing and testing the software. Or, developers may not be satisfied with the testing effort. Maybe too many bugs are escaping the sprint, or maybe automation isn’t getting done in time. Or, perhaps the product owner is not happy with the deliverables and putting pressure on the team to do better. Whatever the circumstance, developers are more than capable of winning with BDD.

Steps

The best way for developers to start is to set up Three Amigos meetings, to stop the game of telephone between biz and test. In those meetings, start translating acceptance criteria into Gherkin. Then, start helping out with test automation – that may mean anything from offering advice to QA to building the framework from scratch. Then, start pushing left and right to get biz and test on board with BDD.

 

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Struggles

It may be difficult for developers to work on test automation because they may lack either the expertise or the time to devote to good test automation. Automation is a specialized discipline, and it takes time and diligence to build up expertise to do it right. I’ve seen very skilled developers haughtily build very shabby automation frameworks.

Developers must also be careful to not be too technical, or else biz and test roles may reject BDD for being too complicated or beyond their abilities. Furthermore, some teams may be resistant to developing test automation. For example, automation work may be “starved” for points because it is underestimated or similarly starved for time because it is deemed lower in priority to other work.

Biz-Led BDD

Circumstances

BDD is designed to bring technical and business roles together into healthier collaboration, and biz folks can certainly lead BDD adoption as successfully as more technical folks can. Major reasons for biz to take the lead could be if development is perpetually running behind schedule, if deliverables don’t meet the original requirements, or if software bugs are rampant.

Steps

For biz roles, “shift left” could be better called “pull left.” Start by writing solid user stories and Gherkin acceptance criteria. Focus on good Gherkin that is readable and reusable. Then, introduce BDD as a refinement to the Agile process, highlighting its benefits. Initiate Three Amigos meetings to make sure that you are communicating the right things to dev and test. Once collaboration is going well, suggest BDD automation as a way to expedite dev and test work. If acceptance criteria are all Gherkinized, then developing BDD automation would be a natural extension.

 

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Struggles

In my experience, biz roles (specifically product owners) tend to be the most hesitant about BDD. They often see writing Gherkin as a burdensome requirement rather than a way to help their team. Or, they may fear that BDD is “too technical” for them. It may also be difficult for them to pitch BDD automation to the team. To be successful, biz roles need to step outside their comfort zone to win supporters from dev and test.

Process paradigm shifts can be hard, especially on teams that are already overwhelmed with work. Some people just don’t like change. Process and automation change can also be a big challenge if QA is outsourced (which is common).

Side-By-Side Comparison

Here’s the TL;DR:

Role Circumstances Steps Struggles
QA
  • Code is delivered too late to test and automate
  • Automation development is not scaling
  1. Build a solid BDD automation framework
  2. Demonstrate automation success
  3. Set up Three Amigos meetings during the sprint
  4. Start writing Gherkin scenarios with biz and dev as part of grooming
  • Showing that BDD is a whole development process, not just a QA thing
  • Getting the team to truly shift left
Dev
  • No separation of dev and QA roles
  • Too many bugs are escaping the sprint
  • Pressure from biz to do better
  1. Initiate better collaboration through Three Amigos and Gherkin
  2. Push right by helping QA with testing and automation
  3. Push left by helping biz write better acceptance criteria
  • Humbly learning good automation practices
  • Dedicating time for automation and more meetings
Biz
  • Missed deadlines
  • Deliverables not matching expectations
  • Too many bugs
  1. Write acceptance criteria in good Gherkin
  2. Set up Three Amigos meetings to review Gherkin
  3. Pitch BDD automation
  • Learning semi-technical things
  • Pushing all the way to automation

Conclusion

These are just three general approaches intended to show how BDD is for everyone. If you have other approaches, please describe them in the comment section below! Whatever the approach, make sure to demonstrate that BDD helps everyone, or else people may feel forced into corners and reject BDD for bad reasons. And remember, software quality is not just QA’s responsibility; it is everyone’s responsibility.

Winning Support for BDD

Adopting behavior-driven development practices can greatly improve software quality and productivity, but like any big change, it will have opponents along with supporters. I’ve met resistance from all roles: testers, developers, product owners, and managers. And some people can be stubborn. As with any proposal, the best way to win support is not just to tell the benefits but to demonstrate them. Below are five major ways to demonstrate the benefits of BDD.

Make it a Refinement, not an Overhaul

I remember talking with a scrum master one time about challenges his team faced with testing and automation. The user stories his team wrote were a mess: they may or may not have had acceptance criteria, and the product owner would often ask for features to be scrapped or redone after a sprint or two. The team basically gave up on automated testing due to feature flux. Naturally, I proposed BDD to him, suggesting that it could help drive better features through formalization. However, this scrum master balked at the idea: “My team is stretched so thin right now, there’s no way we can overhaul our process right now.”

Clearly, the team had a serious problem, but they weren’t willing to try any solution deemed too “big.” The scrum master’s perception was that BDD would be a disruptive change that would hurt them more than help them. In cases like this, it is best to present BDD as a refinement of Agile, and not an overhaul of it. Agile says user stories should have acceptance criteria; BDD says acceptance criteria should be formalized. Agile says that the definition of done should include test automation; BDD says automation is a natural extension of the acceptance criteria. There’s nothing in Agile that BDD undoes, and there are shortcomings in Agile that BDD solves.

Write Good Gherkin

There is a big difference between Gherkin and good Gherkin. Anyone can add BDD buzzwords to existing test procedures, but effective BDD needs a paradigm shift. Unfortunately, bad Gherkin can ruin many of the benefits BDD can bring. For example, imperative steps will frustrate product owners, and mixed point-of-view will confuse testers. Nothing will ever be truly perfect, but it is important to strive for good Gherkin from the start, especially when the first behavior scenarios will often be used as examples for future scenarios.

Start the Automation Snowball

BDD and automation go together like peas and carrots. Not only can test automation shift left (since Gherkin scenarios are both acceptance criteria and tests), but steps can be implemented once and reused by any scenarios. When the first BDD scenarios are written, obviously all steps are new steps. As sprints pass, though, many common steps will likely be reused. I’ve even written new scenarios without adding any new steps!

Test automation is often the last thing to be done for a story, if it’s even reached at all. The inherent step reusability helps BDD automation get done sooner. It may take a while to build up useful, reusable steps in the code base, but they will cause an “automation snowball” once they are there. Imagine telling your team that the test automation is already done once a scenario is written in Gherkin!

Take Baby Steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a mature BDD process be. People take time to adjust to new paradigms. Start out slow, and do it right. Train the team how to write good Gherkin. Try a few stories one sprint, rather than taking on the whole backlog. For a product-owner-led approach, start with Gherkinizing acceptance criteria for a sprint or two before attempting any automation. Alternatively, for a test-led approach, work on the automation framework first, and then start to shift the scenario writing left to the developers and then to the product owners once the snowball gets bigger.

It’s okay if things aren’t perfect at first. Learn the lessons and iterate for improvement. Take baby steps!

Highlight how Everyone Wins

BDD is truly a win/win for everyone. It’s not a way to shuffle responsibilities or push around busywork, it’s a way to make a team more interdependent upon each other. Each role in the Three Amigos is empowered to do the right things, with support from each other in lock-step. Consider how BDD process changes help each role work together better:

Role New Responsibility Interdependent Benefit
Product Owner Learn to express requirements in a more formalized, slightly techy way Better assurance that features will be what they actually want, be working correctly, and be protected against future regressions
Developer Contribute more to grooming and test planning Less likely to develop the wrong thing or to be “held up” by testing
Tester Build and learn a new automation framework Automation will snowball, allowing them to meet sprint commitments and focus extra time on exploratory testing
Everyone Another meeting or two Better communication and fewer problems

 

Nobody on an Agile team can rightly say, “BDD isn’t useful to me.” Software quality is everyone’s responsibility, and BDD is a great way to improve it.

The Behavior-Driven Three Amigos

Recently, my manager said to me, “Andy, your BDD documentation looks great, but could you please mention The Three Amigos?” A brief flash of panic came over me – I had never heard of “The Three Amigos” before. My immediate thought was the 1986 film of the same name or the Disney film The Three Caballeros. After a little research, I knew exactly who they were; I just didn’t know they had a name.

Who are “The Three Amigos”?

The Three Amigos” refers to a meeting of the minds of the three primary roles involved in producing software:

  1. Business – Often named the “business analyst” (BA) or “product owner” (PO), the business role provides what problem must be solved. They provide requirements for the solution. Typically, the business role is non-technical.
  2. Development – The developer role provides how the solution to the problem will be implemented. They build the software and must be very technical.
  3. Testing – The testing role, sometimes named “quality assurance” (QA), verifies that the delivered software product works correctly. They also try to find defects. The tester role must be somewhat technical.

During software development, The Three Amigos should meet regularly to discuss how the product will be developed. It is a shift left practice to avoid misunderstandings (like a game of telephone), thus improving quality and avoiding missed deadlines. The discussions should include only the individuals who will actually work on the specific deliverable, not the whole team.

While The Three Amigos seems most popular in Agile, it can be applied to any software development process. Some (here and here) advocate regularly scheduled formal meetings. Others (here and here) interpret it as an attitude instead of a process, in which the roles continuously collaborate. Regardless of implementation, The Three Amigos need to touch base before development begins.

Applying BDD

The Three Amigos fits perfectly into behavior-driven development, especially as part of BDD with Agile. Behavior scenarios are meant to foster collaboration between technical and non-technical roles because they are simple, high-level, and written in plain language. Given-When-Then provides a common format for discussion.

Ideally, when The Three Amigos meet during grooming and planning, they would formalize acceptance criteria as Gherkin features. Those feature files are then used directly by the developer for direction and the tester for automation. They act like a receipt of purchase for the business role – the feature file says, “This is what you ordered.”

A great technique for Three Amigos collaboration is Example Mapping – it efficiently identifies rules for acceptance criteria, behavior examples, and open questions. Examples can easily be turned into Gherkin scenarios either during or after the meeting.

Since BDD relies on feature files as artifacts, The Behavior-Driven Three Amigos must be more than just an attitude. The point of the collaboration is to produce feature files early for process efficiency. Less formal meetings could quickly devolve into all-talk-no-action.

Don’t Presume Anything

Don’t presume that the three roles will naturally collaborate on their own. I’ve seen teams in which the testers don’t participate in planning. I’ve also seen organizations in which automation engineers don’t help to write the test cases that they need to automate! Developers often abdicate responsibility for testing considerations, because “that’s QA’s job.” And, specifically for BDD, I’ve noticed that product owners resist writing acceptance criteria in Gherkin because they think it is too technical and beyond their role.

The Three Amigos exists as a named practice because collaboration between roles does not always happen. It is an accountability measure. Remember, the ultimate purpose for The Three Amigos is higher quality in both the product and the process. Nobody wants more meetings on their calendar, but everyone can agree that quality is necessary.

12 Awesome Benefits of BDD

What can BDD do for you? Why adopt a new process with a new framework? Because it’s worth it! The main benefits of BDD are better collaboration and automation. This article expands those two into a dozen awesome benefits. (If you read the BDD 101 series, then these points should look familiar.)

#1: Inclusion

BDD is meant to be collaborative. Everyone from the customer to the tester should be able to easily engage in product development. And anyone can write behavior scenarios because they are written in plain language. Scenarios are:

  • Requirements for product owners
  • Acceptance criteria for developers
  • Test cases for testers
  • Scripts for automators
  • Description for other stakeholders

Essentially, BDD is an enhancement of The Three Amigos.

#2: Clarity

Scenarios focus on the expected behaviors of the product. Each scenario focuses on one specific thing. Behaviors are described in plain language, and any ambiguity can be clarified with a simple conversation or Example Mapping. There’s no unreadable code or obscure technical jargon, and there’s no game of telephone. Clarity ensures the customer gets what the customer wants.

#3: Streamlining

BDD is designed to speed up the development process. Everyone involved in development relies upon the same scenarios. Scenarios are requirements, acceptance criteria, test cases, and test scripts all in one – there is no need to write any other artifact. The modular nature of Gherkin syntax expedites test automation development. Furthermore, scenarios can be used as steps to reproduce failures for defect reports.

#4: Shift Left

Shift left” is a buzzword for testing early in the development process. Testing earlier means fewer bugs later. In BDD, test case definition inherently becomes part of the requirements phase (for waterfall) or grooming (for Agile). As soon as behavior scenarios are written, testing and automation can theoretically begin.

#5: Artifacts

Scenarios form a collection of self-documenting test cases as a result of the BDD process. This ever-growing collection forms a perfect regression test suite. Scenarios can be run manually or with automation. Any tests not automated can be added to a backlog to automate in the future.

#6: Automation

BDD frameworks make it easy to turn scenarios into automated tests. The steps are already given by the scenarios – the automation engineer simply needs to write a method/function to perform each step’s operations.

#7: Test-Driven

BDD is an evolution of TDD. Writing scenarios from the beginning enforces quality-first and test-first mindsets. BDD automation can run scenarios to fail until the feature is implemented and causes tests to pass.

#8: Code Reuse

Given-When-Then steps can be reused between scenarios. The underlying implementation for each step does not change. Automation code becomes very modular.

#9: Parameterization

Scenario steps can be parameterized to be even more reusable. For example, a step to click a button can take in its ID. Parameterization can help a team adopt a common, reusable set of steps, and it inspires healthier discussion when writing scenarios.

#10: Variation

Scenario outlines make it easy to run the same scenario with different combinations of inputs. This is a simple but powerful way to expand test coverage without code duplication, which is the bane of test automation.

#11: Momentum

BDD has a snowball effect: scenarios become easier and faster to write and automate as more step definitions are added. Scenarios typically share common steps. Sometimes, new scenarios need nothing more than different step parameters or just one new line.

#12: Adaptability

BDD scenarios are easy to update as the product changes. Plain language is easy to edit. Modular design makes changes to automation code safer. Scenarios can also be filtered by tag name to decide what runs and what doesn’t.

BDD 101: Behavior-Driven Agile

Previous posts in this 101 series have focused heavily upon Gherkin. They may have given the impression that Gherkin is merely a testing language, and that BDD is a test framework. Wrong: BDD is a full development process! Its practices complement Agile software development by bringing clearer communication and shift left testing. As such, BDD is a refinement, not an overhaul, of the Agile process. This post explains how to add behavior-driven practices to the Agile process. (Check the Automation Panda BDD page for the full table of contents.)

Common Agile Problems

User stories can sometimes seem like a game of telephone: the product owner says one thing, the developer makes another thing, and the tester writes a bad test. When the test fails, the tester goes back to the developer for clarification, who in turn goes back to the product owner. Hopefully, the misunderstanding is corrected before demo day, but time is nevertheless lost and resources are burned. Acceptance criteria for a user story should clarify how things should be, but often they are poorly stated or entirely missing.

Another Agile problem, especially in Scrum, is incomplete testing. Development work is often treated like a pipeline: design -> implement -> review -> test -> automate -> DONE. And stories have deadlines. When coding runs late, testers may not get testing done, let alone test automation. Add a game of telephone, and in-sprint testing can become perpetually impeded.

BDD to the Rescue

BDD solves both of these Agile problems beautifully through process efficiency. Let me break this down from a behavior-oriented perspective:

  • Acceptance criteria specify feature behavior.
  • Test cases validate feature behavior.
  • Gherkin feature files document feature behavior.

Therefore, when written in Gherkin, acceptance criteria are test cases! The Gherkin feature file is the formal specification of both the acceptance criteria and the test cases for a user story. One artifact covers both things!

The Behavior-Driven Three Amigos

The Three Amigos” refers to the three primary roles engaged in producing software: business, development, and testing. Each role brings its own perspective to the product, and good software results when all can collaborate well. A common Agile practice is to hold meetings with the Three Amigos as part of grooming or planning.

The BDD process is an enhanced implementation of The Three Amigos. All stakeholders can participate in behavior-driven development because Gherkin is like plain English. Feature files mean different things to different people:

  • They are requirements for product owners.
  • They are acceptance criteria for developers.
  • They are test cases for testers.
  • They are scripts for automators.
  • They are descriptions for other stakeholders.

Thus, BDD fosters healthy collaboration because feature files are pertinent to all stakeholders (or “amigos”). Features files are like receipts – they’re a “proof of purchase” for the team. They document precisely what will be delivered.

Behavior-Driven Sprints

To see why this is a big deal, see what happens in a behavior-driven sprint:

  1. Feature files begin at grooming. As the team prepares user stories in the backlog, acceptance criteria are written in Gherkin. Since Gherkin is easy to read, even non-technical people (namely product owners) can contribute when The Three Amigos meet. Techniques like Example Mapping can make this collaboration easy and efficient.
  2. During planning, all stakeholders get a good understanding of how a feature should behave. Better conversations can happen. Clarifications can be written directly into feature files.
  3. When the sprint starts, feature files are already written. Developers know what must be developed. Testers know what must be tested. There’s no ambiguity.
  4. Test automation can begin immediately because the scenario steps are already written. Some step definitions may already exist, too. New step definitions are typically understandable enough to implement even before the developer commits the product code.
  5. Manual testers know from the start which tests will be automated and which must be run manually. This enables them to make better test plans. It also frees them to do more exploratory testing, which is better for finding bugs.

Overall, Gherkinized acceptance criteria streamline development and improve quality. The team is empowered to shift left. On-time story completion and in-sprint automation become the norm.

(Arguably, these benefits would happen in Kanban as well as in Scrum.)

New Rules

In order to reap the benefits of BDD, the Agile process needs a few new rules. First, formalize all acceptance criteria as Gherkin feature files. In retrospect, it should seem odd that the user story itself is formalized (“As a ___, I want ___, so that ___”) if the acceptance criteria is not (“Given-When-Then”). Writing feature files adds more work to grooming, but it enables the collaboration and shift left testing.

Second, never commit to completing a user story that doesn’t have Gherkinized acceptance criteria. Don’t become sloppy out of expediency. Use the planning meeting as an accountability measure.

Third, include test automation in the definition of done. Stories should not be accepted without their tests completed and automated. Automation in the present guarantees regression coverage in the future, which in turn allows teams to respond to change safely and quickly.

Advanced Topics

Check out these other articles for further learning:

More Agility through Automation

BDD truly improves the Agile process by fixing its shortcomings. The next step is to learn BDD automation, which will be covered in the next post. Until then, I’ll leave this gem here:

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