What is a Failed Sprint and When to Declare a Sprint a Failure?

Editorial Team

What is a Failed Sprint and When to Declare a Sprint a Failure

A failure is never an option. We live in a society that celebrates those who succeed. Unfortunately, we often fail for just one reason: lack of planning and preparation. A failed sprint is the same concept as a failed plan of what an agile team should deliver within the time frame. This article explains what a failed sprint is, why it can happen, and how to avoid it.

What is Sprint?

Sprint refers to a fixed period in which a defined set of activities occurs, and the members create a product increment at the end of the sprint. The time box for a sprint is usually one to four weeks. The team fixes its product development sprint while reviewing its work, then selects an alternative sprint for effective results.

The sprint has daily activities such as sprint planning, development works, daily scrums, sprint retrospectives, and sprint reviews. However, the primary purpose of a sprint is to accomplish a sprint goal. The members thus avoid any activity which may hinder the sprint goal.

During the start of the sprint, the scrum team holds a sprint planning exercise which they limit to eight hours for a one-month Sprint. Next, the development team focuses on the activities to include in the sprint. Finally, the product owner discusses the items to have in the product backlog to accomplish the sprint goal.

The development team works through a sprint backlog, and they conduct daily scrums to discuss what they achieved and what they intend to achieve in the future. They perform a sprint review at the end of the sprint to check the increment and adapt to the product backlog.

How Sprint Works

The scrum team collaborates to deliver value in each sprint while the product owner works with customers and stakeholders to develop a product backlog. The product backlog consists of items that the team needs to deliver to the market.

The development team uses story points to estimate the amount of work they need to deliver the product. Story points refer to a sizing technique that a scrum team applies to quickly evaluate the efforts they need to provide an item, then assign a numeric value (story points).

The team uses their previous performance to estimate their ability to deliver work in the next sprint. To define the scope of the work, the team takes the highest priority stories off the product backlog and puts them in the sprint backlog.

When to Declare a Sprint a Failure?

A team applies scrum frameworks to deliver value in every development sprint. A sprint is generally two weeks long, and the goal is usually to develop software that they can deploy into production. However, along with the sprint, the team may fail to complete their work, thus resulting in a failed sprint.

A failed sprint occurs when a product owner doesn’t feel that he got enough value out of the sprint. The product owner feels unsatisfied with the release cycle, whether due to scope reduction, incomplete work, or technical debt, which the team needs to resolve.

Failed sprints hurt the relationship between the product owner and the customer. Repeated sprint failure results in loss of trust and frustration. A sprint is declared a failure when:

  • The scrum team cancels the proposed scope. 
  • Team members are not working at full capacity, or they are working on something else.
  • There is no confidence that the acceptance criteria will work because they haven’t tested it fully.
  • The team removes a user story or theme from the backlog as part of sprint planning.
  • The time spent working on user stories outside of regular hours is not counted against the team velocity, nor are time Spent fixing bugs during regular work hours. 
  • A team member stops working on the sprint backlog not because they are taking a vacation or sick leave but because they have started working on another project 

Reasons Why Sprints Fail

Failed sprints are due to other issues. A company that experiences several failures should take corrective actions and try to avoid them. Below are the reasons why most sprints fail:

  • Overconfidence

The majority of the scrum teams tend to overestimate their performance, thus fail to accomplish and result in a failed sprint. A team that has consistently achieved 50 points in every sprint will continue getting identical scores, and if they improve, it will be gradually. It’s unlikely for them to deliver 100 points in their next sprint.

  • Unplanned Work

It’s assumed that a team dedicates all its efforts to complete the items in the sprint backlog. However, things do not always run smoothly, and they may have unplanned work along the way. Unplanned work refers to anything that isn’t accounted for and not included in the sprint backlog. For example, it may consist of an urgent request from the management, production issues, or unexpected meetings.

A company can employ several strategies to eliminate unplanned work, such as creating transparency, reserving capacity, and prioritizing unplanned work.

  • Poorly Understood Work

Agile teams strive to improve their productivity during the sprint. They focus on the tasks that aim at completing the sprint, such as completing stories, building, designing, or analyzing needs. The team should keenly review the product backlog to prevent them from misunderstanding some stories.

The team should actively review the items in the product backlog in the current sprint for the next 2-3 sprints. In addition, they should ask questions at this point for clarification to avoid any misunderstanding.

  • Stuck On a Problem

Successful agile teams establish an environment where they value teamwork. The members should be confident enough to admit that they are stuck on an issue and request help. That will prevent the sprint from failing and save on time spent trying to research the possible solutions.

How to Measure Performance

Agile is driven from the foundation of system thinking, thus accelerates data-driven decision-making. Sprint velocity is a fundamental tool that a team uses to measure its performance. Velocity refers to the actual work that the team delivered in each sprint.

A company uses a sprint velocity plan to highlight the difference between the committed and the completed work. The team uses the information to learn, adapt and improve their work. Having a mindset in which you expect the team to always adhere to the sprint commitments results in unachievable expectations and can cause sandbagging performance.

A product owner should expect the team to complete at least 80% of their sprint to avoid that. The strategy offers the product owner and the stakeholders enough confidence in the team’s ability without creating unmaintainable goals.


Every team works on a product for an organization, and most teams use sprints to keep moving towards their goal. Sprints are about building the right product, and to ensure that you are building the right product, you need to make sure your team is delivering successful items every sprint. If an item is not completed as expected, it can impact the team’s ability to fully functional product increment in the next sprint.