Before I write anything about this, I’d like to clarify what I mean by a task and a story.
A feature is something tangible that works and which we could potentially deliver, if it was enough to provide business benefit. Usually a bit of a screen or page, together with all the logic and validation associated with it, is a feature. A feature is the highest-level thing which a developer could work on without doing significant bits of analysis. It’s a part of an idea made at least concrete enough to imagine.
A story is a part of a feature on which we can get feedback from relevant stakeholders. For instance, we might code the UI, then the validation and messages, then an aspect or two of the behaviour behind the UI. Each of these would be a possible story. The only real reason for splitting features into stories is to get faster feedback and a better idea of progress.
A task is a part of a story which doesn’t allow us to get feedback from relevant stakeholders. If you can get feedback, it’s probably a story rather than a task, because it affects the UI in some way, or at least gives something that can be visibly verified and critiqued and which stakeholders care about. There are lots of UIs and lots of stakeholders and users, so “put logging in to help maintenance debug the situation where the elephant appears on the screen” might be a perfectly good story. Anything that’s just a part of a story is a task.
A task can’t really be tested either, even by a developer. You have no idea if a database has the right tables or data until you connect it to something. You have no idea if an interface to another system will work until it’s actually talking to that system. You might unit-test it, or run some queries, but it’s a level below the feedback and user testing available for features and stories. (There are higher levels of testing too, in which we can look for user capabilities and business outcomes, stakeholder goals, profit / loss, etc. – so you can’t really tell if *anything* works until you put it into production – but that’s a blog post for another day).
Why do some teams split stories into tasks?
A lot of Scrum teams particularly do this, because it’s traditionally taught as part of the Certified Scrum Master course. Hopefully good CSTs, and their CSMs, are teaching the benefits along with the practices.
It can lead to more accurate estimates. Splitting stories into tasks can help developers to think about the amount of work involved in a story, and find any pieces they missed.
It can help with collaboration. By splitting a story into tasks, developers can each take that task – usually a different horizontal slice – and work with minimal merge conflicts and just a bit of adjustment to get their piece working with other people’s. Splitting a story into tasks is useful for swarming, and a lot of swarming teams do this instinctively, even if they haven’t written the tasks down.
It can help senior developers mentor junior developers and verify that they’re taking a good approach towards a story. Some mistakes are worth avoiding.
They can be used as a measure of progress to someone tracking the team, like a PM or Scrum Master.
Why don’t other teams do this?
Some teams prefer to focus on delivering something on which they can get feedback, and find the tasks distracting.
There are also other ways of getting accurate estimates. Talking through scenarios can help with this. A lot of teams don’t use estimates anyway, preferring to stick to SLAs or their own instinctive understanding of how much work they can get done and whether they’re going to release on time. Anther purpose of estimation is usually so that the business stakeholders can have trust and confidence in the team, and there are different ways of getting the trust of stakeholders, too.
What bad things might happen if we split our stories into tasks?
Splitting stories into tasks might indeed distract from delivering something on which the team can get feedback. When a developer sees a list of tasks in front of them, they tend to work through those tasks methodically. They might not notice that, for instance, the team isn’t going to deliver *any* stories this week.
Using tasks to estimate team progress can also be misleading. If all the developers end up working on their own stories, the PM might see lots of tasks being done. If none of those stories are ready for the showcase, though, the team won’t be able to get feedback from their stakeholders – and might end up building the wrong things altogether! Also, the Pareto Principle suggests that 20% of the causes are responsible for 80% of the effects – or that the last 20% of the story might take 80% of the time. Often developers will start with the easy bits and leave the hard things until last.
People seeing the tasks can use them to micro-manage the team, asking who’s working on which task, or even assigning particular tasks ahead of time! But anyone with a manager or Scrum Master who does this has bigger problems than the task-splitting, I think.
Why do you absolutely hate people splitting tasks then putting hourly estimates on them?
First and foremost, this harks back to the old myth that time = work done. Even if developers are only held to be productive 50 or 60% of their “ideal” working day, the focus is still on the number of hours spent, rather than useful software being produced. It’s perfectly possible to spend hours on something that doesn’t work. A team which signs off all its tasks is subtly encouraged to say that they’re “done” without checking that the software they’re producing is useful.
What about the developer who plays with something else while turning over a problem in the back of their mind, then delivers an ingenious solution in 2 hours? Or the developer who wants to try out another way of solving the problem which might involve a steep learning curve, but which would benefit the project in the long run? By pinning these developers down to their hourly estimates, insisting on a certain timescale of productivity, we encourage them to tread the path they had in mind when they made the estimate, even if a different idea occurs to them at the time. Since human beings get a kick out of being right – suffering horribly from confirmation bias and the preference for validation – just the act of estimating the hours will pin them down subconsciously. They may not even think about the problem or have the new idea! Hourly estimates can stifle innovation, and the less wriggle room there is, the more innovation will be stifled.
Finally, it encourages micro-management. A project manager who sees a developer working on some tasks that should have taken 8 hours, but have taken all week, might wonder why that developer is taking so long. However, uncomfortable enquiries will only cause the developer to pad their estimates next time – and work expands to fill the time available, so the team will eventually slow down.
Should we do it or not?
If you think splitting stories into tasks might be helpful, try it. If it doesn’t help, stop. However, please resist the urge to put hourly estimates on them – or to ask that your team does so.