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Understanding progress: on points, velocity and when to add new stories

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Understanding progress: on points, velocity and when to add new stories

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Building software takes time. Usually enough time that people are interested in monitoring progress and understanding when it will be done. Agile teams often use User Stories as a unit of work. Typically these are estimated in points enabling a team to record their velocity, that is, the number of points completed per sprint.

With this data, teams have a simple means to show progress. Interested parties can follow along quite easily, seeing how each sprint eats away at the features in the backlog and how many points are left to complete the product. Using the team’s average velocity will give a nice indication of how many more sprints are required to complete the features in the backlog: points remaining ÷ average velocity = sprints remaining.

There is one wrinkle to this otherwise simple scheme. As anyone who has developed software can tell you, the devil is in the detail. Something that initially looks simple can end up being more involved than originally estimated. Case in point: my team recently had a story like the following for a desktop client image processing product they are building:
 
     As an imaging assistant
     I want to be able to open JPG images
     So that I can process them

The story seemed to be straightforward and was implemented easily and quickly. All was well until we tried some particularly large JPG files. At this point things blew up with out of memory errors and the like.

So was handling large JPGs a new feature and thus a new story? Or was it obviously part and parcel of the original? In other words, the question is how do you deal with this and still report easily understandable progress?

The short answer is it doesn’t really matter. You can add new stories to the product to cover the new work that you discover. Or you can just do the work that was implied but not necessarily obvious from the original story. The formula for figuring out how many sprints remain still works either way. Taking the former approach your velocity is likely to remain fairly stable. Taking the latter approach you may see it bounce around a little bit more, or see it dip from historic levels if the team had a velocity established through more predictable types of work (e.g. maintenance on a well known product.)

The longer answer is that each approach has its own pros and cons. Depending on your situation one may be better than the other.

Adding a story, pros:
  • Stakeholders can see the amount of work we original imagined was involved has grown and have more chance to comment on the necessity of these items – perhaps the complexities and edge cases discovered aren’t that valuable.
  • It probably shouldn't matter, but velocity remains stable and nobody feels the need to cross-examine the team and ask "Why has your velocity dropped?" Done this way velocity may even serve as a crude indicator of team performance and improvements can be seen in higher velocity.
Adding a story, cons:
  • It probably shouldn't matter, but there's likely a class of stakeholder that will question why all this "extra" work is emerging and ask how come we failed to identify it in the first place.
  • If the team has the pleasure of using a computerized agile lifecycle management tool then each additional story is another thing to enter, estimate, prioritize, track and update status on etc.
  • The number of points to complete the originally envisaged release keeps growing making some people anxious: "We don't know how much work is left to do, how can you ever hope to predict when it will be done?"
Not adding a story, pros:
  • Nothing extra to track (though we probably need to clarify the acceptance criteria of the original story)
  • Number of points to complete original feature set for the release remains the same (unless we discover a need for genuinely new features)
Not adding a story, cons:
  • The potential roasting of the team: "Why is your velocity erratic/dropping?"
  • The team might miss an opportunity to push low value work down the backlog.
Personally I'm most strongly drawn to the idea of not adding in extra stories. I like the simplicity and minimalism of this. The more items there are in the backlog the harder it is to grok the thing as a whole and more busywork goes into managing it all. I don’t think the “pros” of adding in extra stories are powerful enough to make it the preferred approach. And although there is the potential “con” of the team getting questioned about why their velocity is erratic or dropping, I believe this can be explained quickly in simple terms. I also think it’s a lot more straightforward, even comforting, for stakeholders to see that the size of the backlog remains fairly stable unless things they too understand as new work (features) get added.

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Published at DZone with permission of Jon Archer, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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