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Team Series: Avoiding Leftovers

Updated: Nov 14, 2018


What's for dinner?

What if I told you that:


Cooking dinner is a bit like the process of refining what a team can work on in a sprint. You have to make the stories, discuss, estimate, prioritize, and in general, have something for the team to consume by the time it gets to dinner (aka the sprint).


Dinner itself is what the team consumes during a sprint. They work during the sprint on what they have served up for themselves and hope to finish it by the end so they can look forward to dessert.


Leftovers, however, are the things that go unfinished. What the team could not get through before the end of the sprint. These “leftovers” go into the refrigerator for later (hopefully).


Refrigerator is our backlog or work. It has fresh new ingredients (ideas) but then it also has these leftovers that need to be finished or else they rot away.


It is so easy to want to cook something different for your next meal or even order out from a fancy new sushi place. The temptation to try something new rather than finish off leftovers is strong. But what happens if you don’t get to those leftovers? They spoil and you end up tossing them into the garbage. A once tasty, desired object, that took time and energy to create is now an inedible, decayed thing.


BUT what would happened if we had finished everything on our plate and didn’t have any leftovers? We wouldn’t feel guilty about letting something potentially go to waste or have the pressure to get back to it at some point and finish. And what would have happened if we finished everything on our plate and still had room for some yummy dessert?


As a team, this is the situation we strive for in our sprints. We are able to finish what we pull in without a lot of stress, rushing, or overstuffing. And if there is any time left over, we can potentially pull something else in or have time to focus on our passion projects.


In reality, leftovers will happen occasionally. You sometimes follow a recipe and you don’t realize it makes enough food for 5 rather than 2. Or you are interrupted half-way through dinner and by the time you come back, it is too late to finish eating. In these cases you will end up with things that you have to pack up and put into the refrigerator. It is similar to unplanned for work interrupting a sprint, or something being more effort than originally thought. A team might have unfinished work at the end of the sprint due to these circumstances and, depending on priority, might have to put it right back into the Backlog or finish it in the next sprint.


Some cautionary tales on the dangers of having leftovers too often.


  1. PO - Rather than let leftovers go to waste in the fridge, try to finish them before the team starts something new (only if you can). If you can, try to prioritize the work for a future sprint so the team can finish and the leftover work doesn’t go stale or obsolete. But also understand, your top priority is the value of the product. So the decision on where these “leftovers” go, is really up to you and whether they will provide value. Priorities will shift and sometimes you will have to accept that you will throw something away that is half-finished.

  2. Teams - Be wary of letting leftovers build up. You don’t want to open your fridge and having a bunch of rotting food spilling out all over the floor. Really try to get a handle on how much you can take on in a sprint and focus on finishing those items before you start something new.

  3. Scrum Masters - I have seen teams who have EVERY story open in a sprint at once and this habit tends to lead to leftovers. Instead of that, help them focus on working together to finish each item before starting something new. Coach them to move onto the next thing only if they have finished something before it. Also coach them to make sure they have the confidence they can complete a newly started item before the end of the sprint.


Don't let the leftovers build up!


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