Unfinished Product Backlog Items in Scrum and Agile teams

What happens to all of the Unfinished Product Backlog Items? Nobody asks this question but it is important.

In most of my Scrum classes, there are students who want to know about the unfinished Product Backlog items. Even though the answer to this question may seem obvious to someone who has been using Scrum for quite some time, it may not be so obvious to someone who is used to traditional project management methods and new to Scrum mainly because it is not explicitly explained in Scrum. Most of them expect me to either say: “extend the Sprint” or “get the development team to take overtime” because that is how they have been doing it.

Before we tell you what is the answer, we first must understand the rules in Scrum. Let’s look at the rules in Scrum from Scrum Guide.

Scrum and Transparency

Scrum is built upon transparency, one of the three pillars of empiricism. In Scrum, significant aspects of the process must be visible to those responsible for the outcome.

Product Owner

In Scrum, the sole person responsible for the outcome that the Development team develops is the Product Owner. So we can say that everything that is required so that the Product Owner can make a sound judgment must be made transparent.

Sprint

A Sprint is a time-box of one month or less during which a “Done”, useable, and potentially releasable product Increment is created. Sprints best have consistent durations throughout a development effort. During Sprint Planning the development team forecasts the work that needs to be done during the Sprint.

Product Backlog

Now that we know the rules in Scrum, we can dig into how to do it in Scrum. I always advise my classes to put the unfinished Product Backlog Items into the Product Backlog stack and let the Product Owner make decisions about what to do next. It is up to the Product Owner about what should be done with the unfinished Product Backlog Items. He may want the team to continue working on it at the next Sprint, he may want to drop the items or he may want the team to work on it in the far future Sprint. The point is, it is not up to the development team to make the decision. The Development team’s responsibility is to be transparent.

The Project Manager is not happy

Most of my students were usually disappointed after hearing my explanations, especially if they are a Project Manager or an IT Manager. They are expecting the development team to finish all of the Product Backlog items that have been agreed on during Sprint Planning because they think that a Sprint is a commitment. The project planning process is starting to fail if product is not developed on time. According to Scrum Guide, during Sprint Planning the Development Team works to forecast the functionality that will be developed during the Sprint because there may be many uncertainties that could happen during the Sprint.

If we look at the two most common approaches to unfinished Product Backlog items in traditional development, that is “get overtime” and “extend the Sprint”, both approaches actually violate the law of transparency. Both approaches will make the actual Sprint duration inconsistent. Inconsistencies will make it harder for the development team to make a forecast in the future and the Product Owner to make a sound judgment. And if over time and extending the Sprint becomes the only option it will become the norm and it will not help the development team to become better in planning and estimating.

Unfinished Product Backlog items are the responsibility of the Product Owner

So whenever you have unfinished Product Backlog items, take it to the Product Owner, let him decide what should be done with those items because he is responsible for the Product Backlog. If you are still finding difficulties in understanding the rules in Scrum, the Professional Scrum Master course from Scrum.org is the best course to help you get an in-depth explanation of the values and principles in Scrum.

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