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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.


Barry Hawkins of All Things Computed provides coaching and mentoring in how to successfully apply the process and technical disciplines of Agile Software Development.

3 thoughts on “Ask an Agile Coach: What do I do with a sprint that ends with only incomplete stories?”

  1. I accidentally overstated my problem in that I really didn’t mean “all” user stories were not completed. I actually meant an iteration in which “not all” user stories were completed. Sorry for the confusion, I started by typing a long question and then trying to trim it for twitter and my real question got obscured in the truncation.

    That being said, I do absolutely agree with what you said. As for the case when some of the user stories didn’t get completed, what happens to the user stories which were partially completed–say, 80% finished–but didn’t quite make it? How do you keep your velocity metric from getting hosed?

    1. Oh, don’t sweat it. I have had teams myself with a sprint where nothing gets completed. The key is to use those times for learning; the pain of a really crummy sprint can surface issues that we tend to bury when things are rolling along at a generally acceptable pace.

      As far as velocity goes, I’ll make that another question submission. :-)

  2. Pingback: Ask an Agile Coach: How do I handle the effect of carryover on velocity? | Barry Hawkins

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