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Nine Reasons to Split Large Stories

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Josh Justice

It’s very common in agile development keep stories as small as possible. On most of my projects at Big Nerd Ranch, we try to limit story length so that they take no more than a few days to complete. Sometimes splitting up a large story is easy, but other times it seems impossible. Is it worth the effort to keep trying to find a way to split a large story? Wouldn’t it just be better to start the large story and get it over with?

I agree with a lot of agile practitioners that it’s almost always better to put in the effort to find a way to split a large story to be smaller. Here are nine reasons why.

1. Delivering Value Sooner

Small stories allow you to deliver something of value to the business sooner. The rest of the large story might be delayed by problems that come up, so delivering some value now is better. Delivering a story is valuable even when it’s released to internal business review—and when the story is releasable to end-users, there’s even more of a reason to put in the work to split up the large story.

2. Delivering More Value Sooner

Frequently, some parts of a large story are more important than others. Those parts might help the user finish their task and make the company money, or they might be needed by most users most of the time. When your stories are small you can work on the highest-value story first, and then lower-value pieces can be prioritized below unrelated high-value stories.

3. Parallelization

When you split a large story into several smaller stories, those stories can often be assigned to separate developers to be worked on in parallel. Even if you don’t parallelize them at first, small stories preserve the option for you to do so in the future. The stories may not be parallelizable right away, but they may become so after you finish an initial small story to lay a foundation for the others to build on.

4. Estimation and Scheduling

The best way to forecast how long development will take is to see how long it does take. You can observe how quickly this project team working on that codebase can deliver completed stories, and make forecasts based on that. But when we have large stories that aren’t complete, it’s difficult to forecast, because we don’t know how long it will take to actually finish a story. A large story can seem almost done, but a long tail of wrap-up work can make it drag on. By making stories small and fully completing each one, you find out how long it actually takes to finish a unit of work, and that information can be used to forecast the future more accurately.

5. Merge Conflicts

The longer a branch of code is open, the more likely that there will be a large and tedious merge conflict when it’s merged back in. You can reduce conflicts by merging changes from the main branch into the feature branch repeatedly over the course of the branch, but this is still a large amount of merge effort, just spread out over time. When you work in small stories, you merge your branch down sooner. This means your code is in place to evolve along with the main branch instead of isolated on another branch to diverge.

6. Feedback

A core principle of agile development is to find ways to get feedback early and often. When we have a small story we deliver quickly, we get feedback from other developers via code review and from QA engineers and the business via testing. Also, by finalizing a small story’s tests, visual design, and accessibility, we get feedback on whether the way we wrote the code supports all those needs. With large stories, all this feedback is deferred for a long time, increasing the likelihood that at the end of a long development process, we may need to do significant rework.

7. Minimal Code

The smaller the story, the more you’re encouraged to write only the minimal code that’s needed for the moment. When you’re writing a lot of code at once it’s easy for unneeded code to sneak through, but when the diffs are small it’s easier to identify code that’s unnecessary. Writing only the code you need saves you time as you’re writing it and in the future when you’re maintaining it. Minimal code also makes it easier for you to visualize what’s happening in your app, leading to a more accurate mental model.

8. Motivation

It can be discouraging to be the only developer in standup who keeps saying they are working on the same large story day after day, as other developers get their stories merged in and released. Small stories give you motivation from seeing your own progress as a developer towards building up the system. It’s important to take account of human factors like this—they make the difference between a project that burns you out and one that excites you.

9. Flow

In Extreme Programming Explained, Kent Beck writes about the principle of “flow”:

Flow in software development is delivering a steady flow of valuable software by engaging in all the activities of development simultaneously.

Smaller stories are one important way to achieve flow. Instead of a week of core functionality development, a week of finalizing tests and polish, and a week of responding to code review, you’re doing it all over the course of a couple of days.

Flow benefits a project in many ways. The business is happier because they see steady progress being made and programmers are under less pressure because they can see their progress, too. There is no rush to finish a big story before a release because there are no big stories and there are no arguments about whether a story is really almost done or not because stories only ever take a few days.

Conclusion

Not all of the above factors will apply to every large story, but most of them apply most of the time—and for any given story, at least some of them apply. Together, they paint a picture of an approach to development where developers are making steady progress delivering the next most important functionality every few days.

When you have a large story that doesn’t seem possible to split up, it’s tempting to say that it’s not that big a deal. But I hope the above benefits are motivating for you to work to find a way to split up the story. Your project and team will be better for it.

Now you may be convinced that splitting up large stories is important, but still wondering: how do you actually do it for a given large story? In a followup post we’ll discuss techniques that can help you split up stories when it seems impossible to do so.

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Josh Justice

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