Jay Haybatov
August 18, 2023

Don't add story points

Posted on August 18, 2023  •  2 minutes  • 418 words

Dear project managers and scrum masters,

Let me put it straight: Treating story points as numbers is mistaken. Story points represent the size of a task, not the time it takes to complete the task.

Treat story points as shirt, dress, pants, or shoe sizes. The same shoes have different sizes in Europe, UK, the US or Australia. And if your shoe size is 43 (EU), you don’t buy 2 pairs of shoes sized 20 and 23.

Regard story points in the same way: don’t add them up. Story points are for comparison only. Their intent is to tell you that the task A is bigger than the task B, which in turn is bigger than the task C, because their story points are 33, 21, and 3, respectively. The actual numbers do not really matter. Instead, you could use α, β, and γ if your Greek is good enough, or א, ב, and ג if you enjoy seeing your cursor jumping unpredictably between LTR and RTL scripts.

OK, what’s the point of story points, then? Isn’t the whole idea to sum up all points completed in a sprint to declare that sum as the team’s velocity?

Not that easy. It’s actually easier.

Your team’s velocity is the number of tasks of different sizes it can complete in a sprint. For example, a team has completed 2 five-point tasks, another 2 three-point tasks and 4 one-point tasks, and no tasks left hanging at the end of the sprint. That’s it. It is the team’s velocity.

Try to run your sprints with similar loads to get predictable results. You can go as far as adjusting to a preferred task size for each team member.

Can the team handle 1 five-point task, 2 three-point tasks, and 3 one-point tasks? Yes, based on the previous experience.

Can it handle 6 one-point tasks only? We don’t know. You have to measure your team’s velocity with that load - there is no other way. Guessing will work only after the team has completed 6 one-pointers in a sprint.

Story points also can help you with splitting bigger tasks into smaller ones, but not too small. If your team deals better with lots of three-pointers than with a mix of five- and one-point tasks, agree on breaking your larger tasks into three-point stories, and don’t slice them into smaller chunks.

Don’t forget to update your velocity after every sprint. And remember that sprints are a measure of time, not the delivery deadlines.

Cheers, J.

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