A Project Manager’s Guide to Building Better Teams Using Agile User Stories

User stories can help improve a team’s communication and reveal blockers.

Agile project development isn’t really agile without user stories. Written from the perspective of the end user, user stories allow product developers to understand end users’ needs and build features that will meet those needs. Here’s how a user story could look:

“I am [type of user] and I want to do [X] so that I can [achieve goal X].” 

User stories help agile teams put people first by placing end users at the center of product development conversations. For some projects like software development, user stories are essential to ensure the continuous delivery of value to product owners and, ultimately, to product users.

However, the use of user stories doesn’t have to be limited to product development. Just like how development teams leverage user stories to be in tune with what customers want, project managers can do the same to identify team members’ support needs, eliminate bottlenecks, and build teamwork.

Using the ‘format’ of user stories, PMs can tap into team members’ needs, requirements, desires, or even blockers, to identify the gaps between them and their goals. This can help PMs be more attentive, which can result in better team dynamics, improved collaboration processes, increased work satisfaction, and higher success rates throughout the project life cycle.

Getting started is also pretty easy! Read on for the full guide to using agile user stories to build better teams.

Communicate Support Needs

Sometimes, it can be difficult for team members to communicate the kind of support they need to get through a sprint or development stage successfully. This could be because they are focused on getting tasks done or need intervention to voice their needs. Getting them to write a user story – making it a compulsory unit of work – can be a game changer.

This can be done at either the end or beginning of a development stage. Make sure that team members know that their user stories don’t have to be elaborate, and they don’t take much time to write. What’s important is that the support needed and the goals they want to achieve are stated clearly.

Here’s an example of a user story that communicates support needs:

“As the technical lead, I want to be involved in the project planning phase so that I can hear clients’ business requirements first-hand and ask questions directly to come up with solutions that are better tailored to their needs.”

PMs can then perform backlog grooming to address the user stories and plan out how to solve them over the next development stage or even immediately. This will also provide more insights to retrospectives. One thing is for sure, when managed properly, user stories can elevate team spirits, close the gaps between team members and their goals, and enable room for continuous improvement.

Eliminate Bottlenecks

User stories can also be used for team members to reveal their blockers. As a team, blockers can be easily identified in workflows that are properly mapped out. However, individual blockers are trickier to identify as they are not always communicated clearly.

Individual blockers like the lack of knowledge, uncertainties in actions, time constraints, mental exhaustion, and poor communication dynamics are often left unspoken. This shouldn’t be the case, as they can create bottlenecks in the long run. An agile working environment is admittedly pretty intense, so the limitations of team members should always be acknowledged to help them succeed.

Here’s an example of a user story that entails a blocker, “As a frontend developer, I want to code using Python to improve software maintenance and deliver higher value to product owners.”

By encouraging team members to identify their blockers and ways to resolve, you are able to foster personal development. However, listing out blockers isn’t enough. A user story should also include its definition of done (DoD) so that everyone involved will know what a resolved blocker would look like. Be sure to include acceptance criteria and team members’ approval in the DoD.

For instance, “The frontend developer has successfully mastered Python and is able to scale software maintenance work and add value to the product.”

A key benefit of user stories is that they help create a more satisfying work environment and encourage teams to always explore areas of improvement. Addressing blockers will also be a great way to sharpen the team’s problem-solving skills, improve team interactions, and sustain healthy team dynamics.

Build Teamwork

PMs don’t have to be the only one to address team members’ user stories. If the circumstances allow, user stories can be shared across the team to gain different perspectives on approaching a need or a blocker. This way, the team can grow more attentive, sympathetic, and insightful.

Knowing each other’s needs and limitations enables the team to improve collaborative efforts and strengthen teamwork. According to McKinsey, agile teams are performance-oriented by nature. In a report, the consultancy said that successful agile teams thrive in a culture that “puts people at the center, which engages and empowers everyone in the organization. They can then create value quickly, collaboratively, and effectively.” User stories are central to cultivating this culture.

To make sure that this practice actually creates impact, user stories should not be considered resolved until the said team member is no longer facing the same blocker and can achieve her goals successfully. Treat team members’ user stories the way an end user’s user story is treated – the solution needs to be effective, manageable and sustainable. If not, regroup and rethink.

Start from the Core

Managing agile teams can be demanding, since teams have to always be responsive to changing requirements. But having said that, agility is not truly achieved when the requirements of your own teams are not fulfilled or met. The intensity can be exhaustive for everyone in the team but even more draining if members don’t feel supported.

So, take it one user story at a time, and always keep an open mind when approaching a need or a blocker. It’s all about setting team members up for success. If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.

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