The Never-Ending Story was a 1984 fantasy film about a boy who reads a magical book that tells a story of a young warrior whose task is to stop a dark storm called the Nothing from engulfing a fantasy world.  Apparently it was quite good but all I can remember about it is the large white flying dog like creature.

The Never-Ending stories I am more familiar with are those in Agile projects that start out as something that is assumed to be quite straight forwards but then generates much more work than was expected and before you know it, not only are you carrying it forwards into the next sprint but it starts reoccurring in multiple sprints. So, what are the characteristics of a never-ending story.

A story really represents a feature and as such becomes a bucket for all areas of functionality related to that feature

Agile is about reducing feedback loops in order to build confidence that you are always working on the most important thing at any given moment. Often never-ending stories internalise that feedback loop. Maybe the story represents a new area of a solution. You don’t what to do too much up front design or suffer from analysis paralysis so you have a story that enables you to try a few things out. This is reviewed with the Product Owner and the rest of the team which generates new ideas which is new work.

There is nothing wrong with this description so far, however a never-ending story emerges when that new work is added to the original story. Often this is coupled with a feeling that no one really knows what good looks like. The team starts to feel like they are working towards a moving target. It will only be a matter of time before the “When will you be done” questions start. Think for a minute about how it is possible to formulate an answer. Every time the team asks for feedback, more work is generated and so the goal has changed. Yet they are asked to say when work, which they may not know about yet, will be complete.

Work is blocked by external dependencies

Sometimes someone outside the team has a stake on when a story is complete. It may be that you are integrating with a third party and they have onboarding activities. Perhaps there is an external customer that has a final say on whether the work has been delivered to the necessary standard. The important thing to realise is that you cannot control this decision making and it is highly likely that your timescales will not align. The best thing to do is to accept it and then put in controls to minimise the impact on you.

There are a couple of things you can do to take control.

  1. Understand the requirements of the third parties upfront and ensure that this is factored in when creating the stories in the first place. This may feel like up front design but you are doing just enough to mitigate the risk of a delay in the future.
  2. Don’t “leave the bonnet open” on work whilst it is outside your control. Deal with feedback whether that is good or bad as new work coming into the backlog and deal with it on a priority basis.
  3. Minimise external dependencies by only having them when you absolutely can’t avoid them or where they add value to solutions you deliver.

Quality defects stopping work being completed

In this situation, the work has been done and the team’s tester is working on it only to find a quality issue. The story goes back to the developer to be fixed. Subsequently the tester picks up the work only to find more issues and repeat.  When this has been happening for some time, e.g., it is a reoccurring theme in multiple stand ups, the team needs to try to understand why things are bouncing around between two team members. Are the developer and tester working together on the story or is the developer “throwing the work over the wall”?  Are the defects being raised related to the changes being made under the story in question or are they coincidental. Are the developer and tester on the same page as to the quality metrics for the story?

So what?…

Never-ending stories are bad because they harm your team’s predictability. They are a black hole, they consume effort and people. No-one in your team is really sure when they will be complete. If you are working on one it can be very demoralising. Personally, I am motivated by finishing things but never-ending stories can really feel like a ball and chain, never allowing you to finish and never enabling you to move on to other things.

When you look at the examples I give there are a couple of ways to avoid never ending stories

Firstly, ensure that you are aware of the work that is being created. Whilst it is normal to create some new work when delivering stories, you need to decide the point at which you need to call it out, surfacing it as new work in the backlog and letting the PO prioritise it rather than absorbing it. If you are not doing this during a sprint, maybe when the story is carried over at a sprint boundary, this would be a good time to ask yourself if the story should be broken down.

Secondly many of the problems with defining the scope and boundary of a story could be resolve by investing time in defined acceptance criteria at the start. You may use a Story Kick-Off for this. The acceptance criteria could describe how the story should function, they define the quality criteria for the story and the expectations of third parties. And let’s not forget that we should be aiming to avoid large stories, breaking them down along their natural seams in order to keep your team predictable and high performing.

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