“Stories” Don’t Tell a Story: Good Sprint Planning Uses Milestones

Teams lose sight of the forest for the trees

Teams that only pay attention to their story backlog will find it difficult to relate their work to the company’s roadmap. Managers will often find themselves in the tough situation of not being able to look at the sprint board and know with confidence when a project will be done, because the board doesn’t translate to shipping. Also, story planning often overlooks the “glue” steps and the last mile of release and polish.

“Stories” Don’t Tell a Story

A pile of sprint stories will never add up to the original initiative. If a team believes its job is to churn through stories, then it lays a heavy burden on someone else (usually the PM) to fill in all the gaps and adapt to changes — and very often, the result is that projects are left in an “almost-done” state for far too long. When sprint planning meetings are just about moving items from a backlog, the message is “it had been decided that we will do THIS WORK.” It will be hard to say when a feature will ship because of ALL THE OTHER WORK.


Compare that to a narrative that leads with purpose: “we want to do THIS THING, so that’s why we think we should do THIS WORK.” The message is: “focus on finishing THIS THING.” It’s everyone’s job to fill in the gaps. They know they should reject unrelated tasks, or feel free to make reasonable adjustments. There should be a good sense of the overall project status.

What About Epics? Aren’t Those the Same Thing?

Done correctly, an epic is a milestone — it should be a deliverable goal associated with a collection of stories. However, in practice, epics are one of the most abused aspects of agile because people don’t treat epics as goals, they treat them as execution plans. During sprint planning, most teams just use epics as a project management mechanism to filter a sprint board or show Gannt-chart-like-progress. So what if 5 of 8 stories stories in the epic are complete — does that actually mean we are 63% of the way to delivering value? Probably not, there are bound to be a few extra steps; but the epic presented a false sense of specificity.

Manage Through Milestones

It takes surprisingly little additional work to shift to managing teams with milestones, and it makes a world of difference.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry



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Chuck Groom

Chuck Groom


Consulting CTO open to projects. I’m a serial entrepreneur, software engineer, and leader at early- and mid-stage companies. https://www.chuckgroom.com