Ask an Agile Coach: What do I do with a sprint that ends with only incomplete stories?

Today's Ask an Agile Coach submission comes from Jake Gordon via Twitter:

Anyone (@barryhawkins)  have any good articles on reaching the end of an iteration with only partially completed user stories? #agile

What do you do with a sprint that ends with only incomplete stories?

When a sprint ends and every story is incomplete, it is typically a symptom of one or more of the following underlying causes:

  • The stories were all larger than the team had estimated due to lack of cross-functional participation in the story writing and estimation process.
  • Team members kept switching between stories instead of focusing on single ones, completing them, then moving on to the next in priority. Minimize work in process (WIP).
  • Core parts of the process are being left out, such as a highly-visible task board, a burndown chart, effective daily stand-up meetings, etc.; as a result, feedback and handoffs are unnecessarily delayed.
  • The team is working on a platform or problem domain that is new, and its estimations are commensurately less accurate, leading to over-commitment.

When a sprint like this happens, effective retrospectives are essential. Ensure that all parts of the process have transparency. Visibility into how work flows from concept to customer is necessary for inspection. Use the insights gained from inspection to guide an incremental, sustainable rate of adaptation. Strive to eliminate waste and improve communication.

A single sprint where nothing gets completed is a warning sign that should not be ignored. Multiple sprints where nothing gets completed calls for a full-blown intervention. If you can't get out of that rut on your own, seek external assistance.