Buckle-Up Sign

When everything is done it is time to buckle and go home!

When I am asked what a team should do with stories that are incomplete at the end of a sprint or iteration I am reminded of the Jackson Browne song Load Out -Stay

“Now the seats are all empty
Let the roadies take the stage
Pack it up and tear it down
They’re the first to come and last to leave”

Now the demonstration and retrospective are all done and despite the team’s best efforts, one or more stories do not meet the definition of done. The planning process that springs into action after the completion of one sprint often times feels sort of anticlimactic compared to the celebration that marks the end of an iteration. The team feels like the roadies as they swing back into action to pack up the last iteration and get the next ready to go. Shortcuts are sometimes taken with teams and product owners without thinking about “rolling-over” the escaped stories. Doing anything without thought is never a good idea. The three basic steps for dealing with incomplete stories are:

  1. Return the incomplete stories (or other work items) to the backlog. Stories are either done or not done, there is no partial credit.
  2. Re-prioritize the backlog based on all of the stories on the backlog. There are a number of approaches for prioritization ranging from most risky first to most valuable first. As part of the re-prioritization, reassess the approach to selecting work. At times it might be more important not to stop work on the story even when it does not meet the team’s prioritization strategy. Sometimes team members have just gotten to a point they can solve a problem and putting down might be less efficient, however, sometimes the need of the business and product owner will conflict (the product owner and business always win).
  3. Plan (or re-plan) the work that will enter the team level planning process. Prioritize stories that are more important or return higher value ahead of the stories that you returned to the backlog unless there is a solid reason why that should happen.

The process for dealing with incomplete stories is straightforward. Incomplete stories have to compete for attention just like any other story. Being partially done does not generate a privileged position.

In addition to re-prioritization, items you should keep in mind when addressing incomplete stories.

  1. Do not recognize any contribution to velocity or throughput for incomplete items. Remember no partial credit. Velocity is an average over a large number of sprints or iterations; it will balance out. Throughput is similar.
  2. If you are tracking cycle time (and you should be) don’t reset the start date of the story. The start date for the piece of work begins when the team first starts to work on the item and ends when the story meets the definition of done.
  3. If using story points and velocity as a planning tool don’t resize the story or your velocity will be incorrect and no amount of averaging will fix the problem.

Resist the urge just to roll over stories into the next sprint or iteration. Reassess whether they should be worked on in the next sprint (or even if they should be worked on at all) when compared to other work. Reassessing will make people uncomfortable; there was a commitment to complete an item when you drew it into the sprint. However, transparency and thought are core behaviors that every team should embrace.