Scrum Anti-Pattern: NOT Prioritising Stories Within Sprints

Craig Dickson has published an article on Agile DZone claiming that prioritising Stories with a Sprint is an anti-pattern. He blogged this in December last year, when I noticed it and grumbled on twitter, but no more. Now that its re-appeared on DZone I feel compelled to say something, and that it warrants a blog post of my own rather than a comment.

Craig says that a Scrum team commits to a “set of Stories by the end of the Sprint” (his emphasis), and that prioritising within the Sprint means that the “commitment evaporates”. That sounds to me like committing to, and delivering, a batch of Stories. I’m sure notable Scrum luminaries have assured me that the Sprint is not a batch. Craig even suggests the Scrum diagrams should represent the Sprint Backlog as “one single large block of work”. What about flow? What about limiting work in progress to improve flow? If shorter Sprints are good because it encourages prioritisation and limits work in progress, why not prioritise work and limit work in progress with the Sprint?

Craig goes on to suggest that rather than prioritising a Story within a Sprint so that it can “meet a business need”, the PO should “reach out and educate the necessary stake holders about the Scrum process”. This sounds to me like Craig is recommending that Scrum dictates how the organisation is run, and that this is more important than meeting a business need. I prefer my processes to support and enable organisations to meet their business needs. Scrum should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. My view of Agile is that is about being responsive to business needs, not forcing organisations to wait until a convenient date. A cadence should be useful, but not a restriction.

Similarly, Craig says that prioritising Stories within Sprints is bad if it creates “implementation dependencies between Stories”. I prefer to think that a Product Owner should be able to ask for, and have delivered, increments/iterations in whatever order creates the most value, and not be constrained in this way by process policies about how Stories should be written. Worse still is the suggestion that any dependant Stories should be scheduled into separate Sprints. How is that being responsive to business needs and encouraging flow?

Finally, I think that Craig is missing a trick. In the same way that short Sprints focus a team’s technical and creative capabilities to figure out how to get to DONE in a short time-box, so too will prioritising Stories within a Sprint focus a team to stretch their skills even further. A team that can deliver and release a single Story every day or so is surely in a better position that one which can only deliver a batch of Stories every week or so.

Craig concludes by observing that “There is nothing in the Scrum process that talks about Story priorities within a single Sprint.” Correct. But that doesn’t make it an anti-pattern, in the same way that TDD is not a Scrum anti-pattern because Scrum says nothing about TDD. Rather, I’d say that NOT prioritising stories within Sprints is the anti-pattern.

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