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Burn Your Points Before They Expire

Story points, relative sizing, hours of effort, and more

7 August 2015

Rumesh Wijetunge
Zaizi Asia

How many of you have experienced situations in which your customer or your product owner asks, "So Jim, how many Dev points did you burn yesterday?" or "Team, I haven't seen you guys burning any story points; are you guys really working over there?"

I've even come across situations in which teams struggle to respond to this sort of question and finally stutter with an answer such as, "Hey Mr. PO, we burned five story points yesterday. We still have three points remaining to complete that story."

I've experienced questions such as these in organizations that are adopting Scrum for the first time or are new to Agile. Some are cases in which the ScrumMaster or product owner (PO) is assigned from the customer side or from a nontechnical background. But, come to think of it, a customer asking such questions makes sense, because their primary objective is to make sure that the project is delivered according to the Triple Constraints (time, cost, and quality), and to make sure that the product is sold in the market on time and is generating revenue as soon as possible.

In terms of Agile principles, are the above scenarios actually valid? Can you really give a count of how many story points you have burned? The answer is an emphatic no!

As we all know, estimations in Agile are based on relative sizing. The team selects a well-defined, reasonably sized user story (based on complexity or value) as the base story. The team then agrees on a story point value for that particular story. Let's say, as an example, story A is of size 2. Then the team goes through the rest of the stories in the backlog and, by comparing them with the base story, assigns story points to the remaining stories. This we all know. During sprint planning, the team then decides on the list of tasks required to complete each story and specifies how long a particular task may take in terms of hours.

So, another question that is asked frequently is, "Is there a direct relationship between the story point assigned and the number of hours for the whole story?" Again, no! You might have a story of 5 story points assigned with 20 hours worth of effort, and another story of 3 story points assigned 20 hours of effort. It all depends on the maturity of the team and the gut feeling of the team at the time of sprint planning and estimations.

I circle back to our previous question about story points burned. The team reports time spent on each task and updates the remaining time to complete each task, in hours. So the total amount of time left to complete a story can be calculated day-by-day by summing up the remaining amount of hours. This is what gets reflected on your burn-down chart. Nowhere do you update or change your initial amount of story points assigned for your story. So, the logical answer you should give your PO is, "I've burned six hours of effort yesterday, and I have three hours of effort remaining to complete task ABC."

Finally, what if the team is unable to complete a story during a sprint? Does the number of story points assigned get added to the velocity? For example, can we say out of an 8-point user story, we completed 5 points and that should get added to the velocity? Again, no! User stories that are not completed are moved to the backlog and reprioritized and reestimated. An unfinished story of size 8, of which a certain percentage of work was completed, may be reestimated to be of 5 story points now and thus brought forward to a subsequent sprint.

I hope this all makes sense. The next time someone asks you the questions at the beginning of this article, you'll know what to say!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.3 (4 ratings)


Tim Baffa, CSM, 8/10/2015 11:21:48 AM
I enjoyed the article, and the emphatic "NO" replies to each non-agile inquiry.

I personally do not ask my teams to track task time for accepted stories. Tasks certainly need to be defined for every relatively-estimated story, but in my opinion it is wasteful effort to track and measure the time spent by team members on specific tasks.

AGILE PRINCIPLE #7: Working software is the primary measure of progress.

I try to remove any measuring efforts by the team that are not at the story level. They are free to discuss task status (especially in the Stand-Up), but outside of discussing when a task is expected to be finished, or if it is finished, or hasn't been started yet, there is little value to have team members tracking their time toward tasks. Scrum is not about micromanaging the work effort! Burndown charts provide just as much information when tracking completed stories as any attempt to track completed tasks. In fact, burndown charts that track completed tasks are misleading in that they represent progress that may not result in completed sprint items.

Also, I would question the practice of re-estimating story points for de-scoped sprint stories. If an 8-point story is not finished in a sprint and it is moved to the next sprint, all 8 points need to be moved with the story. It is wasteful to have the team spend time re-evaluating the remaining effort and coming up with a new estimate. Teams should get complete credit for stories completed, and no credit for stories not completed.

In the article example, the percentage of work completed for an unfinished story is discarded when the story is re-estimated according to remaining effort. This is simply wrong. Keep the story at 8 points, and do not grant the team credit for completing 3 of the 8 story points. You will find that this not only reinforces to the team the importance of finishing stories within the sprint, but also the velocity of the team averages out. You needn't worry about figuring out the % of work completed for any story. It is either complete, or not.
Rumesh Wijetunge, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 8/17/2015 12:05:54 AM
Thanks for your comment Tim. And your clarifications on remaining time, % completed and bringing a story forward to a new sprint makes real sense. And yes, what you are saying is correct. The team must be given full credit for the story they undertake and when moving to the next sprint all the story points must be moved to the next sprint without re-estimating. It makes much more sense. :-)

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