Small Slices – the How To

Last blog we talked about the power of a small slice. It very  much talked to why they were so important and I provided some examples. Now we’re going to talk about how to do this. There is no shortage of technical advice on this, and simply re-posting what experts like Ron Jeffries, Jeff Patton and others are famous for would not be a good use of your time. Here are some tangible actions you can take in your teams immediately to achieve smaller slices. Be warned, it’s not what you might think…

Get Physical

Often the reason our stories are so big is that we have lost connection to them. They’re tucked away in a spreadsheet or online tool, and when you’re typing something, it’s easier to use more words. When we’re limited to an index card we simply must be brief. Neil Gaiman is famous for writing his first drafts by hand.

“… I would think my way through a sentence further; I would write less, in a good way.” – Neil Gaiman

Brevity brings elegance to our work. And this elegance comes from collaboration. So if your physical wall is languishing, get it up to date with brief descriptions of your work – and make sure you’re working on those descriptions together!

Just Ask 

Even if you think it can’t be sliced, ask anyway. Then ask a different way. Get into the habit of asking – so much so that it becomes second nature to ask. It’s a powerful habit!

Questions you could ask:

  • Can this be sliced more thinly?
  • What do you think we could realistically do in the next week? Fortnight? Day?
  • If it were only possible to do part of this, what is the most valuable part?
  • Bonus: If you find yourself getting stuck in ‘how’, shift gears and start asking ‘why’ more – Nietzsche is famous for “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. This is why User Story cards have the ‘so that’…


Okay this is a big one and links to asking the question. I’m passionate about asking questions like ‘what else?’ even if I’m sure there isn’t anything else. The habit mentioned above is a great way of short circuiting whatever you believe. But what you will find over time, is that it’s easier to ask questions like these when you truly believe it’s possible. Remember… beliefs can change (must change!) over time.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Play a game

Sometimes we’re simply too close to the work and we can’t see the forest for the trees. So playing a game to bring a concept to life is worth its weight in story points. My favourite is Alistair Cockburn’s Elephant Carpaccio (Henrik Kniberg created a useful guide). I’ve both played it with Alistair and facilitated it a number of times, and I’m always amazed at the new insights I get. Alistair breaks down the game components in his famous Advanced Agile Master Class. If you are an Agile Coach, this is a must if you are serious about continuous learning. As a team member, ask your Agile Coach to facilitate a game to help the team break through this challenge. 

Focus on finishing

When I wrote The Agile Project Manager, I released small slices to my readers and they came back with feedback. It was the ultimate Agile project. Until it came time to bring it all together. There was a lot to finish, and I’m not sure that deep down I wanted to. This final act of ‘finishing’ made me realise that I liked saying I was writing a book, and wasn’t sure about my new identity of having written a book. I spent some time with my coach working through strategies, focused on finishing, and the rest is history. If you are continually being faced with giant pieces of work, take a look at your immediate team environment. What isn’t being finished? 

  • Is your social contract/team charter half done or languishing on a forgotten Confluence page?
  • Did you finish your last retrospective with clear actions? Were these actions made visible?
  • Have you celebrated a win lately? No matter how small? Small wins can boost inner work life tremendously, and actually prime our brains to do more of the thing that led to that small win.
  • Is your office kitchen littered with dirty cups and dishes? When I see kitchens with dishes left out rather than put away, I can almost guarantee that teams are struggling to slice stories and finish work. Washing and putting away a cup is the simplest form of finishing something small. If you can’t do that, what chance do you have with anything else?

The All Blacks are known for this quote:

“I am the team and the team is me”

The little things are the big things. The big things are the small things. 

These are some of the proven techniques I use when I coach teams. I would love to hear how you go with these, and other techniques you have used with success (or failed at and learned something of course!)



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.