Story Points: No Parking

Story points are a planning tool that has proponents and opponents. Like most tools, story points are not prima facie evil, it is only through misuse that they are problematic.  Problems tend to occur because leader, managers, and team members have a need (or at least a very strong desire) to know when a piece work will be done, what they are going to do next, whether they are meeting expectations, and in many cases what something will cost. Story points are a relative measure, a proxy of a proxy that makes answering any of these questions with precision very difficult. The best anyone can hope for is that the answers story points provide are accurate enough and provide a coherent feedback loop for teams. This could be considered damning with faint praise, however, in the right circumstances story points are a useful tool for a TEAM. I am a proponent of using story points in three scenarios.

  1. No History – Many agile teams have not learned the need for measurement. One of the core tenets of agile is that every team needs to inspect and adapt. The process of inspecting and adapting is not limited to the code or product they are delivering but rather includes how the team is working.  Process improvement and planning requires data such as throughput, cycle time and escape rate — flow metrics. Flow metrics provide a team with a solid platform to plan tactically. Until a team collects a modicum of data, they need a mechanism to plan. Story points are a useful starting point as a team planning mechanism. Velocity (the average number of story points delivered per sprint or iteration) is useful as input into the planning process.
  2. Inconsistent Delivery Performance – Teams can have delivery issues for any number of reasons. However, one common cause that is that team’s (typically less mature teams) fail to break work into small enough pieces that allow flow and fast feedback. If anything goes wrong, everything gets backed up. The process of story pointing is a useful tool to establish that a piece of work is too large and that the team needs to learn how to break work into more elementary components. Story points are used as a tool to facilitate a conversation about breaking work down.
  3. New Teams – By definition, teams have no data or performance history when they initially form. While every team is different, time working together is required to establish patterns of behavior. Story points are a useful tool to help teams plan and have the conversations needed to develop an understanding of team member capabilities.  

Story points are a useful tool when teams have not developed consistency. If we were to invoke the Tuckman Model of team formation (forming, storming, norming, and performing), story points are most useful when teams are forming.  As teams develop self-knowledge, data, and feedback loops story points are useful.

Special Note:  In contractual scenarios with performance and productivity stipulations use IFPUG Function Points or other ISO standard sizing approaches. They are useful in contract negotiations, conflict resolution, and litigation.