On the „Meet the experts – Agility“ in this year, an open space titled „Theme concept versus User stories“ took place. The flash point for this open space was the assumption appearing in scrum lectures, that theme concepts would not be required any more. They would be replaced by user stories.
My experience has taught me to face this assumption very doubtfully. In my opinion, theme concepts are a very helpful tool in project work, even for agile projects. As an agile approach is not based on static requirements, a theme concept can no longer have the function to stipulate the business requirements, which have to be realized within the scope of the project. Much more, the function of the concepts has to be found in the pre-project phase, where it is used to structure the collected business requirements. In the course of the project and after finishing it, it roughly illustrates the requirements and helps to get a handle on the topic. In this way, it makes it easier to collect and structure new demands.
In the pre-project phase, often a lot of unstructured requirements are collected. They often differ by means of their descriptions’ depth, are in most cases only verbalized from one roles’ point of view. They are often inconsistent with one another, fully or partly. In this phase, a conceptional tool is required in order to develop a unitary and consistent solution. In this area, theme concepts have their strengths, because they show the entity and not only segments, like user stories impart them.
A consistent and well written theme concept also helps when inevitably discussions concerning new business requirements and other problems start. In real projects, it seldom is the case that one singular person makes the business decision alone. There often is a board for decisions or at least, several persons will be involved. It is easier, to hold this discussion based on a concept, then just to refer to user stories which may appear very incoherently.
Similar also is the benefit during the further lifetime of the product, which was developed within the framework of the project. Just when you try to get an overview of a current product, concepts are the ideal source of information and offer a possibility to even involve persons, who are not familiar with the previous project.
The agile surrounding of the project and the other duty of the concepts certainly will change the concepts. The new or changed requirements within the agile surrounding also cause an ongoing modification of the concepts during the course of the project. The structure will change too, so that it would not make sense to describe the whole project surrounding as detailed as it has usually been the case in connection with classic concepts.
Also in agile projects, concepts make sense and will not become redundant by using user stories. They present a reasonable addition by displaying an overview of the solution and by putting the individual user stories into the master plan. Thereby, the form and content of the concepts have to be adapted to the agile approach.