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Janet Gregory: Agile Consultant, Trainer, Advisor, Writer, Speaker

One of the hardest things I find to get people to understand is how to think in small chunks when it comes to breaking up features and stories. One company I was recently talking to is still struggling on defining a release scope. They haven’t gotten the idea of thin slices, delivering small pieces and adding more each time until they get something that meets their needs.

Last week I was at our cabin and pulled out a jigsaw puzzle. I love doing them, but the only time I seem to tackle them is when I am there. This time, I was all alone when I dumped the fresh puzzle on to the board. I looked at the picture – my final goal, the release acceptance test if you like, and tried to decide how to sort the pieces. There is no one correct way to do this. Everyone has their own ideas. The only consistency that I have seen is everyone tries to make sure they get all the outside pieces separated.

As I began sorting, I realized that it was easier than normal even though there wasn’t a lot of definition difference between pieces. I realized it was because I was making all the decisions and didn’t have to explain my thinking, why was I putting that piece in that pile, etc. … and that got me thinking. I started off with 4 piles – the outside pieces, the ones that were mostly white, the beige coloured ones, and the shaded browns. As I sorted, I added piles because I started to see differences that I hadn’t before – the curtains, and shaded gray pieces. I started to think of this process as if I was a Product Champion. What was going to be in this release – my initial thoughts, and then a bit more detail as I considered options. My piles of pieces were pretty generic with little understanding of what the details were. I believe this is why I found it helpful to do it alone – I had no real idea of what I was doing, I was only starting to understand the bigger picture.

Once I got all the pieces into my initial 6 piles, I was able was ready to start collaborating with people, and get more ideas in play. Was my thinking correct? Did they understand my ideas and why I sorted them into those piles? Could I explain my vision so that others could help me put it together?

Since I was alone, I started by framing the puzzle, putting together the outside pieces. Of course, it did not work the first time. I had extra pieces that didn’t quite fit, and others that were missing pieces. I desperately wanted someone to challenge my thinking – where did I go wrong. Instead, I got up, walked away and came back a bit later to see where my issues were. All the pieces were there, just not quite in the right places. This is what I like to see in release planning sessions – looking at the big picture, where are the holes, what is missing.

Once the frame was done, I looked at the other five piles trying to decide what the most important thing was. To me, the most important part of a puzzle is the “core”, what makes the picture. If I am doing a landscape, the buildings or highlights are the most critical. If I don’t finish the sky, I don’t think my puzzle is incomplete – the challenge for me is not trying to fit like colour pieces. It is tedious work that is a ‘try it’, ‘does it fit’ kind of effort. To me, that is low business value and I will happily put the puzzle away without completing a sky.

In this puzzle, I chose a simple well-defined area to start with. These pieces were in the beige coloured pile (my feature). I divided this large pile into 4 smaller piles and started with the simplest “story”, the mirror. It was then easy to continue and add complexity, the rest of the beige pieces which belonged to a couple of picture frames, and the background wall. There were some that didn’t belong to this feature, so I put them into a ‘backlog’ to be grabbed later when I found something useful they belonged with.

As I was going through this process, it dawned on me that this might be an easy way to think about creating stories. Don’t try to look at the whole picture at once, but tackle each section a bit at a time. Keep breaking it up smaller and smaller. It becomes much easier to deal with. Eventually, it gets put together and you have your big picture. It is important to keep the big picture in view at all times, but work on small chunks … one piece at a time.


2 comments on “Jigsaw Puzzles & Small Chunks

  1. I really like this story. You have done a great job of using a well known item, the jigsaw puzzle, to effectively relate an important concept to the world.

    Initially I thought you may be about to talk about the shape of puzzle pieces and how they interface, each piece has three or four sides of interface to another. Breaking a project up in a way like building a puzzle should result in clean little modules like puzzle pieces. Can you imagine a how convoluted it would be to fit the pieces together if they were like some of the spaghetti code that results from less organized project efforts?

    Thank you for sharing this, and have a great day.


  2. The article is interesting. I was worried about something is missing in the document until I read the below sentence at the end of the story "It is important to keep the big picture in view at all times, but work on small chunks … one piece at a time."
    I find this missing many times during the Agile projects not with huge gap but with some gap by the end of the project. In an Agile environment, it is important for BA's to have broader picture of what they want before they collate the small chuncks of work.

    Thanks for the article,


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