Mix the Sizes of the Product Backlog Items You Commit To

Teams used to a sequential development process have become accustomed to hand-offs between specialists. Analysts hand their work to designers who hand it to programmers who pass it on to testers. Each of these hand-offs includes some overhead in the form of meetings, documents to read and perhaps sign, and so on.

In part because of this overhead, the hand-offs tend to be of large amounts of functionality. In the purest meaning of a waterfall process, the entire application is handed from group to group. Teams that are new to agile project management often do not go far enough in eliminating these hand-offs. They often make the assumption that the programmers should finish programming a product backlog item before handing it off to the testers.

This results in lengthy delays at the start of a sprint, when the testers are waiting for a first product backlog item to be handed to them. On a Scrum project, the unit of transfer between disciplines should be smaller than an individual product backlog item. That is, although there will always be some hand-offs (not everyone can be working on everything all the time), the amount of work being transferred from one person to the next should generally be as small as possible.

To facilitate these small transfers, Scrum teams learn to work by doing a little of everything all the time. Rather than an analysis phase (done without the programmer and tester) followed by a programming phase followed by a testing phase, a little of each of those activities is happening at all times. Even with an emphasis on minimal hand-offs, there will be some product backlog items that will require a week or more of programming time before the programmer can give something even beginning to be testable to a tester. That’s OK. Not everything can be split as small as we might like.

To avoid a flurry of testing activity toward the end-of-sprint, avoid bringing a bunch of these complex items into the same sprint. Instead of planning a sprint with, for example, three very large items that cannot be partially implemented, bring one or two large items into the sprint along with two or three smaller items.

Some of the programmers can work on the large items, handing them over to testers whenever possible. The remaining programmers can work on the smaller items, ensuring a somewhat smoother flow of work to testers early in the sprint.

While your goal in each sprint should be to do a little bit of everything all the time, some backlog items are complex by nature and will not be completed until near or on the last day of a sprint. To avoid having multiple product backlog items wrapping up the last few days of the sprint, mix the size of the product backlog items you choose to bring into each sprint.

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Mike Cohn

About the Author

Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at hello@mountaingoatsoftware.com. If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.

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