Managing large stories on agile projects, our approach

In theory, an agile story is a simple and obvious thing with many purposes. A description of some desired usage; a token for discussion; a prompt for acceptance tests; a grain around which to gather more detail. In practice, a story can sometimes be more like a traditional feature requirement, or more like a delivery contract. In these cases, estimating, developing, and delivering the story can provoke problems, risk, and conflict.

One such case is when a story is too large for comfortable estimation. Commonly this arises when a story is driven by a desire for a feature or sweeping change – something easy to give a name to, but complex in its detail. We have faced at least one of these most iterations.

Bill de hÓra discusses some approaches to tackling such large stories in a recent blog post:

Bill de hÓra: Managing large stories on agile projects

In our team we typically tackle the problem slightly differently. The items on our progress wall are represented by brown A5 envelopes, each with summary information (title, id, estimate) written in large, friendly letters on the outside, and an accumulation of detail (notes, time spent, diagrams, etc.) inside. To stop the contents falling out, the envelopes are all placed on the wall with the opening on the side.

Why do I mention this? We use a quick of this to deal with large stories. A story too large to estimate and develop on its own is represented by an envelope with the opening at the bottom. This implies that such stories can not accumulate detail of their own, but only reference other stories. We split the large customer story into several internal stories, estimate, annotate an develop them independently, but do not consider the main story complete until all the component stories are also complete. To show the relationship we write the ids of the component stories on the outside of the “vertical” envelope.

This approach seems to work. Stakeholders still have visibility of the status of the large story, and the development team is free to implement the component stories in parallel or in sequence, in whatever order is most effective and efficient.