Recently, I have incorporated a new discussion exercise when I am teaching agile methodology to teams and product owners. So far, I have had great feedback from this, so I thought I should share it.

The point of the exercise is to highlight that answering even a simple question requires an understanding of its context and meaning, which is very important when you as a team or product owner interact with others involved in the agile process.

The discussion starts with a seemingly simple question:

”How much does it cost to eat a hamburger?”

I then ask the audience to answer the question. Typically, you get answers such as ”it’s 39 kronor at McDonald’s”, ”depends on what kind of hamburger you want”, or even the slightly more philosophical ”it does not cost anything to eat it, but to buy it”.

To quickstart the discussion, I ask ”In what unit should the answer be given, do you think?”, and I start getting suggestions:

  • kronor, obviously
  • or perhaps some other currency, depending on where you are or are going
  • calories
  • kilometers running to get rid of those calories
  • CO2 emissions
  • some relative scale related to Big Mac index

The audience concludes that the unit is depending on who is asking the question, and in what context.

I then give a context:

”This specific question is given by X, who is a soccer coach for a kids team taking them on a soccer tournament in Gothenburg. X wants the team to have hamburgers on a restaurant after the games. Now, what is the answer?”

The audience, who typically now – if not before – starts to get the point, continues to ask questions:

  • what restaurant are we talking about?
  • how old are the kids? (i.e. how much do they eat?)
  • how big is the team?
  • does everybody on the team like hamburgers?
  • will they need to go on the tram to get there?
  • is it just the hamburger, or a complete menu with fries and soda?
  • do they want dessert as well?

I applaud them them for having such good questions, but they still have not asked the most important question (and so far, no audience have come up with this one, without me giving it to them). So I continue:

”X does not need a precise estimate – X does not intend to pay for the hamburgers himself. X only wants a rough estimate so that he can tell the parents how much pocket money each kid should bring.”

Summarizing the important points of the exercise, I tell the audience that to understand the question and being able to give a proper cost estimate – be it hamburgers or IT systems –  we need to know who is asking the question, in what context the question is asked, why it is asked. It is only with answers to these questions that we can start asking all those other, domain-specific questions, and hope to reach a good estimate.