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Why You Shouldn’t Assign Team Members to User Stories During Sprint Planning

Published 2 months ago • 4 min read

The Agile Compass

by Matthias Orgler

Hello Reader,

last week we talked about why we can’t seem to let go of “finalizing the plan”. This week we'll look at a common bad habit that can sneak into your sprint planning in Scrum.

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Why You Shouldn’t Assign Team Members to User Stories During Sprint Planning

In Scrum, the practice of assigning user stories to individuals during sprint planning might seem like a straightforward approach to task allocation. However, this method introduces several challenges that can derail the collaborative spirit of agile development. Let’s get down to why this approach misses the mark in agile practice and outline a clear path to a more cohesive and dynamic team environment.

Diminishing Team Spirit and Flexibility

Pre-assigning user stories fosters a culture of solo fighters, each team member embarking on their quest within the sprint. This practice inadvertently sidelines the collective team spirit and collaboration that are the bedrock of agile methodology. It creates a scenario where team members are aligned more with their tasks than with the team’s goals, reducing the overall alignment and flexibility. When challenges arise or priorities shift, the team’s ability to adapt swiftly is compromised, as members are locked into predefined roles and tasks.

Stifling Learning and Creating Expert Silos

The division of work into individual assignments can significantly hamper the cross-pollination of knowledge and skills within the team. It leads to the creation of expert silos, where learning is limited to specific domains, and the opportunity for team members to broaden their expertise is lost. This segregation not only restricts personal growth but also makes the team less resilient to absences or changes in team composition, as the concentrated knowledge in certain areas becomes a vulnerability.

Creating Artificial Bottlenecks

When stories are pre-assigned, an unspoken rule emerges: “This is your story, and that is mine.” This delineation can lead others to hesitate before picking up tasks outside their assignments, even when they have the capacity to help. This reluctance fosters artificial bottlenecks, where important stories might languish untouched because they’re “someone else’s responsibility,” while team members might resort to picking up less critical tasks just to stay busy. This misalignment between task selection and product priorities can significantly impact the team’s efficiency and the product's success.

Misunderstanding the Nature of User Stories

If every user story in your backlog can be neatly assigned to an individual, it’s worth questioning whether these are truly user stories in the agile sense. Genuine user stories are inherently cross-functional, requiring collaboration across different skill sets to fully address a user need. Consider a story like “Allow people to pay with credit card” — this isn’t just a task for a backend developer; it involves database changes, security considerations, UI/UX design, and possibly content creation. A true user story reflects a slice of user value that typically spans multiple areas of expertise, underscoring the necessity for team collaboration.

The Path Forward: Embracing Ad-hoc Story Picking

The solution to these challenges lies in a fundamental shift away from pre-assigning stories. Instead, embrace a model where team members dynamically pick up the next user story based on current priorities and their capacity. This ad-hoc approach fosters a truly agile environment where flexibility, learning, and collaboration are at the forefront. It encourages team members to engage with different aspects of the product, broadening their skill sets and understanding of the product as a whole. By aligning story selection with immediate priorities and available capacity, the team can more effectively address the most critical needs, ensuring that the product moves forward in a cohesive and efficient manner.

In conclusion, moving away from the practice of assigning user stories to individuals during sprint planning is not just about avoiding the pitfalls it presents. It’s about embracing the essence of agility, fostering a team environment that is flexible, collaborative, and aligned with the overarching goals of the product. By letting team members pick user stories ad-hoc, we can cultivate a dynamic and resilient team capable of navigating the complexities of agile development with confidence and collective expertise.

P.S.: If you want to read more on user stories and why the question "how to write a good user story" might be the wrong question, check out my past article Let's chat about writing user stories…or not

Thank you for reading The Agile Compass. I'm Matthias, here to help you help those around you become agile.


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The Agile Compass

by Matthias Orgler, MSc

Agility is more than agile frameworks – it's about humans. Learn what creates high-performing teams, innovative products and thriving businesses.

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