Is it possible to make user stories too small?


For those of you who are uninitiated into the terminology of agile software development, a ‘story’ refers to a chunk of work. The general principle for sizing these stories is to size them with the customer/end user in mind using the following question:

What is the smallest unit of work that will provide value to my customer?

There are lots of good reasons to keep your stories small. For a good overview, you should check out this article from the Agile Alliance. I want to clarify I am not arguing against small stories. Small stories are good.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s get on to the original question.

But… is it possible to make them too small?

This question was brought up at work by a coworker whom I greatly respect, and I stewed on it for quite a while. I think the answer is yes and no.

Before anyone gets up in arms, let me explain.

There is no such thing as a story being too small as long as a customer would still be happy to see you deploy that small piece of work live into their production environment (i.e., you’re dutifully creating stories according to the guideline above). However, there is such a thing as work being improperly sliced/chunked. Improperly chunked work can slow down implementation work significantly.

Let’s explain this concept with an overly simplified example:

I want you to wash this large truck and trailer.

Now, let’s split the work of cleaning this truck up into three chunks of work!

  1. Clean the left side of the truck and trailer
  2. Clean the right side of the truck and trailer
  3. Clean the center of the truck and trailer

Let’s look at what splitting the work this way is going to mean for our lovely cleaning crew:

  1. They will have to get up and get down from the top of the trailer six times.
  2. They will have to move very slowly and carefully not to wash too much (i.e., we don’t want them working on anything other than their user story).
  3. Because everything is so close, it will be hard to avoid re-work (i.e., if they wash the left side, right side, and then the center, they will likely have to re-wash the left and right sides).

Let’s split the work up slightly and see what optimizations we can get.

  1. Clean the truck
  2. Clean the trailer
  3. Clean the wheels

Now, our cleaners get multiple benefits:

  1. They only have to get up and down from the trailer once
  2. There is a clear delineation of work from one story to the next since this work split is entirely based on easily identifiable parts of the truck
  3. It’s going to be easy to plan the work out to minimize the risk of re-work (i.e., work on the tallest things first and work your way down)

What’s the principle here?

I used a very simplistic example of a task split three ways. We identified that when cleaning the truck is split three ways there is a potential for a sub-optimal split. Now… let’s say that we decided to split the work of cleaning the truck into fifteen small stories.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that goal. It is possible, but it will require much more planning to figure out the best way to split the work.

The smaller your stories are split, the greater your risk of improperly breaking the stories

How do we avoid sub-optimal story splitting in software development?

In a Scrum shop, the people who can best answer What is the smallest unit of work that will provide value to my customer? are commonly the product owner and the business analyst. Because they are the best at that, they are typically the ones best able to create user stories.

The software developers are typically those who best answer the question What is the optimal way to chunk the work?.

So what’s the solution?

In a Scrum shop, it’s typically:

Sprint Planning & Backlog Refinement

Everyone necessary is in the room looking at the stories created by the Product Owner and Business Analyst. Developers can suggest the work be split differently if it’s not optimally divided, and the team can agree on a plan that works for everyone.

The one risk that is making stories too small introduces here though is that it can mean your stories are so small they don’t all make it into a sprint planning or backlog refinement before the work starts. For example, let’s say you have something split up into fifteen work items. We only have time to review five of those fifteen in our sprint planning session. The developers here are not able to see the whole picture. They might suggest optimal ways to merge the five stories while being completely unaware of the other ten sitting in the backlog that also should be merged.

So in a scrum shop, I would suggest that if the Business Analyst and Product Owner are ever on the fence about whether or not something should be split up or kept large; they should keep it larger and split with the development team present.

What are your thoughts?

I’d like to hear what you think about the topic. Feel free to leave me a comment or open a discussion on LinkedIn.

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