A number of recent problems has caused our team to tweak our weekly Backlog Review meeting.  Specifically, we’ve added two items to the agenda: 1) a review of the stories tentatively scheduled for the next sprint (and possibly the next one after that) and 2) providing our PO with an estimate of our story point capacity for the next sprint.  If you’re thinking “why weren’t you reviewing upcoming stories already and why don’t you just use your velocity?” read on.

The first problem we experienced dealt with a specific story – a new database report that was needed.  The report was originally conceived and designed a few months ago but the project was postponed for several (valid) reasons.  The story, though, had been estimated months ago and then not touched again.  When business priorities were such that the report was again a priority, we simply dropped it into a sprint.  That’s when things got ugly.

In the intervening months, the estimate had become stale.  We had learned several rather critical lessons about this particular type of database report (we had developed similar ones in the meantime) but never incorporated that learning into this story or its estimate.  What we originally thought was an 8 point story instantly became 6 different 5 point stories.

That’s all fine and good – estimates are estimates and it is expected that the team will gain new knowledge and refine estimates as time goes on.  That’s not what happened, though.  Instead, we only realized the problem during our sprint planning meeting.  Since our velocity was hovering in the low 30’s, the revised set of stories ate an entire sprint.  Product Management was not expecting that at all.  Though they were prepared for estimates to shift and priorities to have to be moved around, they were not prepared for a sprint that they thought (and were basically told) would hold 4 or 5 different stories being eaten up by one story.

The lesson we learned was that we simply couldn’t allow stories and their estimates to become stale – there was too much risk that the story itself no longer made sense or that the estimate was now widely off.  Ideally, stories would never get stale because the backlog would be a pull system and stories would be planned and estimated very close to when development would begin.  Unfortunately, a huge piece of prioritization is weighing costs and Product Management can’t gauge the cost/benefit of each story relative to others without estimates.  Thus, it sometimes happens that stories are estimated and then shelved for a while.

To deal with this, both the team and Product Management now know to be on the look out for any stale stories or estimates that might be making their way to the top of the backlog.  Additionally, we’ve now broken our backlog review into two parts: estimated new stories and reviewing the one or two sprint’s worth of stories at the top of the backlog in case anything needs to be tweaked.  This uncovers problems a lot earlier than the sprint planning meeting and gives Product Management a chance to move around other priorities and reset customer expectations.

Secondly, our team’s capacity over the last several sprints has been somewhat erratic due to overlapping vacations, conference attendance, and other circumstances.  As a result, Product Management has been subjected to a few rude surprises on the first day of a new sprint when we tell them that our capacity for this sprint is half of what it was last time.  The fix for this (at least until our schedules settle down and we can really rely on our velocity again) is to take 2-3 minutes in the backlog review and estimate (in story points) our capacity for the next sprint.  This again gives Product Management so early warning and time to shift things around as necessary.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has had similar problems and what their solutions were.

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