SLicing Stories that won't finish



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Although all work may not be completed within a Sprint we want to avoid unfinished work at the end of a Sprint as much as possible. [1] It is desirable that Product Backlog Items (PBIs) assigned to a Sprint are completed within that Sprint. When it is evident this will not be the case, we should alter our plans.

Why Avoid Incomplete Product Backlog Items

Sprints are designed to deliver value [2]. When Stories are incomplete, no value  will be delivered and no Increment will have been created


Failed to achieve the Sprint Goal

Increments of value in the Sprint help achieve the Sprint Goal. If there are incomplete Stories, then we'll fail to achieve the Sprint Goal.


Nothing to inspect at Sprint Review

If no Stories meet the Defintion of Done, then there will be nothing to review and get feedback on.


Reduced transparency

Without an Increment of value at the end of the Sprint, the Sprint Goal will not have been meet and progress toward the Product Goal will be unknown.

Return Incomplete Items to the Product Backlog

Actions for the team

  • Step 1: Return any Product Backlog items that don’t meet the Definition of Done to the Product Backlog [2].
  • Step 2: Re-estimate the remaining effort required for the item to meet the Definition of Done.
  • Step 3: As the Story isn’t Done, no Story Points for that item are added to the team’s velocity for this Sprint

Actions for the Product Owner

  • Step 1: Assess how much budget is now needed to complete the work.
  • Step 2: Assess whether the remaining work is still of value.
  • Step 3: Determine whether the work is of value to do in the next Sprint.
  • Step 4: Re-order the Product Backlog to reflect the new priorities.


Can Value Still Be Delivered in the Sprint?

Sometimes, a Product Backlog item while still not complete, a part may be of value.

  • Step 1: Engage the Product Owner
  • Step 2: Discuss what elements of the Story do meet the Definition of Done and may be of value
  • Step 3: Slice out the work that is unlikely to be Done by the end of the Sprint and return it to the Product Backlog.

Best times to assess progress: Daily Scrum

Team members should be inspecting progress toward the Sprint Goal on a daily basis at the Daily Scrum (“Stand-up” if the team is doing Extreme Programming). This provides the team the opportunity to:


Assess progress toward the Sprint Goal.

Increments of value in the Sprint help achieve the Sprint Goal. If there are incomplete Stories, then we may fail to achieve the Sprint Goal.

Assess the state of Increments

Have any items met the Definition of Done? What is needed for items to achieve the Definition of Done today?


Adjust the Sprint Backlog

Accomodate any adjustments to the team's plan for the day to achieve the Sprint Goal by adjusting the Sprint Backlog.

Anti-patterns: Daily Scrum is a planning session, not a status report

Ensure that Stories are assessed in terms of meeting the Definition of Done at Daily Scrum, and any adjustments made, to ensure value is delivered and the Sprint Goal is achieved. Focus on the state of Increments and the Sprint Goal, not on going "around the room" and asking everyone for a status report on their tasks.

Retrospective Actions

Use retrospectives for the team to reflect upon why a Story could not be completed within the Sprint. Common causes for incomplete Stories include:

  • Having too much work in-progress.
  • Unclear priorities.
  • A poorly defined Sprint Goal.
  • Over-commitment.
  • Unreliable estimates.

Things to watch out for

  • People tend to be overly optimistic in completing work. Build a supportive culture that encourages team members to speak up when work is not going as planned.
  • Insufficient reflection and action may led to ongoing overrun of Stories.
  • Product Owners may be unhappy with unmet goals. Manage their expectations with timely communication and transparency.
  • Persistent overruns may be overlooked and become “business as usual”.


1. Cohn, M. (2014) Unfinished Work at the End of a Sprint is Not Evil.

2. Sutherland, J. & Schwaber, K. (2020) The 2020 Scrum Guide (TM).

3. Cohn, M. (2015) Handling Work Left at the End of a Sprint.

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