How Backlog Items and public johns are related

When in my trainings I reach the part about Product Backlogs and Backlog Items, I try to explain to the participants the reasons why Backlog Items just need a fuzzy description of a required functionality by showing them, that written requirements are usually far from perfect. The details will show up in the conversations between team and Product Owner. I use examples like “The appetizer will be served with soup or salad and bread” and ask the participants to choose their garnish to show the imperfection of the written word. As you probably can imagine there’s usually some confusion, because it’s not clear, if it’s “(soup or salad) and bread” or “soup or (salad and bread)“. Another example is a simple name input field with arising questions like “Is it mandatory?“, “What’s the maximum length?“, “Are special characters allowed?” and so on. But sometimes I get the feeling that there are some hardcore product managers among the participants who are still convinced they would be able to write the perfect requirements document (Let’s not discuss the time needed for that, please). So I thought about another example and found one in my own context which is a lot easier to remember (especially for men).

I’ve got a cranky habit. For more than 20 years now I try to use the second john from the right in a public restroom. Exception: If there are three johns in a row I use the right one. I’m not sure why I act like this. The only thing I remember is that I used to use the fourth one from the right until once at the university this one was in use by a fellow student. Pulling his leg I asked him to leave since he was using “my” john and he answered “No, it’s mine, and it has been for years”. This was when I decided to use the second one from the right from then on, because I didn’t want to share.

On a first glance the definition given above is pretty clear. But using public restrooms over the years I learned that my own definition sometimes lacks clarification. What if the second john is in use? Do I wait? (This could lead to awkward situations, especially if there are lots of free johns around and you and the other guy are the only ones in the restroom). If not, which one do I use? (My usual fallback is still the fourth). I didn’t think about this situation to come up in the beginning. If there’s just one john, you use it. But it happens that there are six johns, three on the right side, three on the left side. Which one to use? Is it the second one on the right side, which  is located in a group of three? Wouldn’t this imply according to my exception given above that I need to use the right one? There’s no time to think about rules and definitions if you need to pee, so I just choose any john.

Can you see my dilemma? Despite I (=Product Owner) am following my own rules (=requirements) I sometimes run in situations where my rules are not clear enough, even to myself. How can I write perfect requirements for others if I don’t even get them straight for myself? My last experience a few days ago was a row of johns with the one on the right side being a john for boys, hanging a bit lower than the usual ones. Does it count as a john? Do I have to use the one next to the kids’ john? You see, I’m not even clear about my own, twenty years old rules, how should I be able to write the perfect requirements document?

Well, I’m going to use this as an example in the future, let me know what you think about it. BTW: A little bird chirped to me that I’m not alone and that there’s something similar going on in women’ restrooms. What are your cranky habits? Is there anything which could serve as an example as well?

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