Sprint Backlog – Don’t Solve Half of the Problem

This content is syndicated from Tyner Blain by Scott Sehlhorst. To view the original post in full, click here.

Every team that transitions to agile faces this problem – some stories are too big to fit in a single sprint.  Most of the teams that I have worked with have the wrong instinct – to solve half of the problem for all users.

The right approach is to first solve all of the problem for a subset of the users.

The Goal of the Story

User stories were created as lower-overhead use cases that served to better describe chunks of valuable software that could be rapidly developed, delivered, reviewed, used, and improved. Writing user stories that undermine that intent – rapid, valuable, incremental delivery – is a bad way to write user stories.

Imagine you are part of the team building GoToAssist, a product designed to do this. Your product manager and product owner put the following story into the top of your backlog – it is the most valuable capability you could add.

As a provider of IT support, I need to remotely resolve issues on multiple computers simultaneously, every day, so that those computers will run well.

The acceptance criteria include requiring that the solution working when accessing Apple computers, and PCs running various versions of windows and Linux. Other acceptance criteria include allowing the solution to work well through network connections having minimum characteristics, not requiring the remote users to take action, and other elements that characterize what would be considered acceptable solutions by the stakeholders.

Your team immediately raises a red flag that this user story is “too big” for a single sprint.

Since the goal of the sprint is to deliver valuable, shippable software, you have a problem with any user story that cannot be completed within a single sprint.

No problem, just decompose the user story into smaller user stories…

Inside-Out User Stories (Bad)

Note: Don’t confuse making smaller user stories with defining the tasks required to implement a user story. Task definition is important and valuable for helping the development team organize their activities.  Making smaller user stories is not a good approach for organizing the team’s activities – use tasks instead.  The size and structure of user stories should align with the user’s goals.

An inside out perspective or approach is one that starts with an awareness of what is involved in creating the software, and either never, or only later considers the perspective of what it is like use the software.

When approaching the problem inside-out, you will break the story down as follows:

  1. As a provider of IT support, I need to remotely gain access to multiple computers simultaneously…
  2. As a provider of IT support, I need to remotely authenticate as an administrator to each computer I access…
  3. As a provider of IT support, I need to remotely control each computer I access…
  4. As a provider of IT support, I need to remotely restore control of each computer…

This approach looks very appealing, because it is very clear what has to be done to support each new user story, and each new user story is appreciably smaller. Assume that each new user story is “small enough” for the team and does not need to be further reduced in size. It is very easy to see how the scope of development work has been reduced for each user story.

The problem shows up when you approach this schedule from a user’s perspective. Imagine that this product shipped with only stories 1 & 2, and not 3 & 4. How useful would the user find the product to be if she could remotely access a computer and authenticate, but not actually control the computer (to do her remote support work) or return control to the computer’s owner?

The reason you should not break the original user story up into these pieces is that the new stories do not independently represent delivery of valuable software. These proposed smaller user stories are atomic (each step is discrete), but each step has no independent value. The value is implicit in the sequence of steps, and is only realized when all four steps can be completed. The original story is already the smallest set of activities that allow the user to achieve his goal – a complete user story.

The problem with decomposing the original user story from the inside-out is that the new user stories don’t provide independent value to any of the users.

What about trying an approach that provides all of the value to some of the users?

Outside-In Story Decomposition (Good)

You are still faced with the challenge of making the story smaller, but now with the constraint of only delivering pieces that provide independent value. You need an approach that will work to split the story up per-user. “Provider of IT support” is an overly broad category of users – it is heterogeneous, within which different groups of users will use the product differently. I am a “provider of IT support” to my family, but I never have a need to access multiple computers simultaneously. I also don’t need to do this more than once a month on average. A corporate IT specialist responsible for 100 users would really benefit from simultaneous remote access to multiple machines – allowing her to multi-task, starting updates on a second machine while the first machine is working, etc.

There are at least two different personas that care about the “remote administration” user story, within the “provider of IT support” user category. One persona who needs to access only one machine at a time, and one persona who needs to access multiple machines simultaneously. This split allows you to decouple all of the work associated with managing simultaneous connections from the work associated with the sequence of steps (as applied through a single connection). This may reduce the size of the original user story enough to complete it in one sprint, but probably not, since it only “shaves off a little work.”

Another way to discover different sets of people who could benefit from delivering the user story differently is to look at the acceptance criteria.

Right off the bat, we’ve called out that the solution needs to work when the remotely accessed computers are running several different operating systems. You can make the user story smaller by constraining to one supported platform at a time. Whichever platform you pick first – say Linux – has some users who will value your solution. Start with them, then add another platform. Work with the product manager to determine how many customers in the market will require each platform or combination of platforms – that will guide the sequence in which you build support for each platform.

Another acceptance criteria required that the remote users not need to be involved – enabling “unattended” remote support – a key market differentiator. A key differentiator for the corporate IT specialist persona, who gets value from not having to coordinate support activities with multiple remote users. In fact, it is probably a must-have feature for those customers. As a family-support specialist, I don’t really have this need. My mom is going to call me, and I can fix her pc while we’re on the phone. I’m not trying to remotely administer her machine when a corporate policy has changed (on my schedule) – I’m doing it when a problem arises (on her schedule). This criteria can be deferred for a later iteration of the story

This approach works because, while it may be not be intuitive (from the inside) that this is a viable way to decompose the story, it makes send from an outside-in, user perspective.  Think about the different sources of value / problems, and how different people value solutions to the same problems differently.  The important characteristics of the problem will vary from one persona to another.

What About Development Efficiency?

As a developer, you may very correctly complain that this is a really inefficient development process. Some portion of the work done to enable controlling a single machine may need to be discarded and recreated in order to control multiple machines in parallel.

While these extra development costs are very visible, especially to developers, they are much smaller than the benefits that come from delivering the working software earlier. The cost of resolving bugs increases by orders of magnitude as you move through the product creation life cycle (from development to testing to deployment). The value of solutions also increases by orders of magnitude as they move through the process. Getting working product deployed earlier allows you to start realizing value (and therefore revenue) earlier.

That increase in revenue far outweighs the cost of a less-efficient development approach. Ignoring revenue side and focusing only on the cost side is being penny-wise but pound-foolish.

Dogma and Pragmatism

None of this should be taken as dogma. My experience has been that this approach has almost always worked, sometimes requiring more radical thinking than others. When it does not work (e.g. does not provide additional value, or does not sufficiently reduce the size of the stories), don’t do it. I’ll always remember Kent Beck saying to me – “If it costs more to test (in advance) than it costs to fix the bugs (after the fact), then don’t test.”

The same applies here, be pragmatic about it.

If you’ve been biting your tongue since the middle of the “Inside-Out” section, because you can always just wait until all four user stories are completed in separate sprints, before releasing the software, then my apologies. Of course you can do that. But you are undermining a precept of Scrum – that every sprint could be released, if you needed to release it.

That may not apply to you – I work with some teams that develop enterprise software, and for them, releasing every sprint makes no sense – their customers can’t absorb the rapid improvements, their sales teams aren’t willing to sell differently, etc. So, please forgive me, and go back and read the Outside-In section again, since you were probably ignoring that section as you started planning a great comment about this.

Who knows – a “too big” user story may appear in the backlog for the last sprint within your current release – wouldn’t it be great if you had the choice to release something (valuable) in the current release?

Think about this problem from an outside-in perspective. The smallest story is one that allows a single customer to perform a single task, for which he will pay you.

People Over Process – Conclusion

The objective that every sprint deliver valuable, working software, is not a requirement. It is a design principle of the Scrum process.

Agile is not about mandating processes, it is about getting better and faster. When you can’t reasonably decompose a story into something that can be delivered in a single sprint, don’t. You can have a sprint where you don’t deliver anything, because you only complete part of one thing. Yes, it will look bad on the burn-down chart.

Will it mess with your velocity? A bit. But who cares? Velocity is a measurement that helps inform projected delivery schedules. You may have one sprint with zero velocity, but in the next sprint, when you do deliver the “two sprint story”, you’ll have double the velocity. Magically, your running average is back to normal.

Don’t let the rulers you use to measure the team’s output cause you to act irrationally.



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