Work Breakdown for the Agilist

This post is based on my Answer to the programmers stackexchange question “How to break up a programming project into tasks for other developers?”.

How to breakdown work? So you have this big project coming up. No matter whether you’re requirements engineer, project manager, product owner, scrum master, lead developer, architect, team lead, line manager or whatever, many of us are in a role or situation where we’re confronted with the question “how do we split this?”. Last but not least to also answer a bunch of other questions: How much effort is this? How much time will it take? Can we do it?

So here’s my hitlist of how to breakdown a programming project.


  • Don’t go alone. Try to involve your team-mates as much as possible.
  • Travel lightweight.
  • Democracy, but not too much. Often it’s not about what satisfies the biggest number of people, but what hurts the least number of people.
  • Keep what (needs to be done) and how (it is done) separate.
  • Learn about Scrum (“what”), XP (“how”), Kanban (“how much”), Lean (“what not”) and DevOps (“with whom”).
  • Lean also is about flow: For overall efficiency, flow efficiency is usually more important than individual efficiency.
  • Learn about Software Craftsmanship, Clean Code and Pragmatic Programming.
  • Good architecture is about maximizing the number of decisions not taken.
  • Scrum / XP / Lean / Agile is about maximizing the amount of work not done. YAGNI.
  • The Primary Value of Software is that you can easily change it. That it does what it should do is important but that’s only its Secondary Value.
  • Prefer an iterative approach, use time boxes for almost everything, especially meetings, make Parkinson’s Law your friend.
  • Balance team structure with an understanding of Conway’s Law and Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development.
  • Programming is a quaternity, it is science, engineering, art and craft all at the same time, and those need to be in balance.
  • Just because Scrum / XP / Lean / Kanban / DevOps / XYZ is good for someone (including me) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s also good for you / suits your environment. Don’t believe the hype, don’t blindly follow it, understand it first.
  • Inspect and Adapt! (Scrum Mantra)
  • Avoid Duplication - Once and only Once! (XP Mantra) aka DRY.

“What world” work breakdown process

  • Collect Requirements as User Stories / Job Stories into a Product Backlog.
  • User (of User Story) similar to Actor (in UML) similar to Persona similar to Role.
  • Refine User Stories until the meet your team’s Definition of Ready based on INVEST (Scrum Meeting: Backlog Refinement).
  • Sort the Product Backlog by Business Value.
  • Don’t start work on a Story before it’s Ready Ready (ready according to the Definition of Ready).
  • Use Planning Poker to estimate the effort of Stories in Story Points. Use Triangular Comparison to ensure consistency of the estimates.
  • Yesterday’s Weather is the best estimate, hope the worst.
  • Split Stories if they are too big.
  • Improve delivery culture with a Definition of Done.
  • Don’t accept the implementation of a User Story before it’s Done Done (done according to the Definition of Done).
  • Check your progress with Burndown Charts.
  • Regulary check with your Stakeholders whether what the team delivers is what’s really needed. (Scrum Meeting: Sprint Review)

Story Breakdown

  • List and Describe Users / Personas / Actors / Roles (Product Owner)
  • Epic -> Stories (User Story or Job Story) (Product Owner)
  • Story -> Acceptance Criteria (Product Owner)
  • Story -> Subtasks (Dev Team)
  • Acceptance Criteria -> Acceptance Tests (Spec: Product Owner, Impl: Dev Team)
  • Start with a Walking Skeleton.
  • Create an MVP - Minimum Viable Product.
  • Expand the MVP using SMURFS - Specifically Marketable, Useful, Releasable Feature Sets.

“How world” realization

  • Use OOA/D, UML and CRC Cards, but avoid the big design upfront.
  • Implement object-oriented, structured and functional at the same time as much as possible, regardless of the programming language.
  • Use Version Control (preferably distributed).
  • Start with Acceptance Tests.
  • Apply TDD, leeting the Three Laws of TDD drive you through the Red-Green-Refactor-Cycle, with Single-Assert-Rule, 4 A’s, GWT (Given When Then) from BDD.
  • Apply the SOLID and the package principles to manage Coupling and Cohesion. Example: S in SOLID is SRP = Single Responsibility Principle, significantly reduces the number of edit- resp. merge-conflicts in teams.
  • Know Law of Demeter / Tell, Don’t Ask.
  • Use Continuous Integration, if applicable even Continuous Delivery (DevOps).
  • Use Collective Code Ownership based on an agreed common Coding Standard.
  • Apply Continuous Design Improvement (fka Continuous Refactoring).
  • The Source Code is the Design. Still upfront thinking is indispensable, and nobody will object a few good clarifying UML diagrams.
  • XP doesn’t mean no day is architecture day, it means every day is architecture day. It’s a focus on architecture, not a defocus, and the focus is in the code.
  • Keep your Technical Debt low, avoid the four design smells Fragility, Rigidity, Immobility and Viscosity.
  • Architecture is about business logic, not about persistence and delivery mechanisms.
  • Architecture is a team sport (there is no ‘I’ in Architecture).
  • Design Patterns, Refactoring and the Transformation Priority Premise.
  • Project Code is the ATP-Trinity with priorities: 1. Automation Code, 2. Test Code, 3. Production Code.
  • Regulary check with your team peers whether how the team delivers can be improved. (Scrum Meeting: Sprint Retrospective)

Above list is certainly incomplete, and some parts might even be disputable!

Found something that’s missing? Disagree with something? Please join the discussion below!


Written on March 16, 2015