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What is a spike?

What is a spike?

Welcome to part 18 in our Agile coach interview questions series where John McFadyen answers common questions asked of agile coaches in interviews and client engagements.

A spike is often a research piece.

You will often hear teams speak about putting a spike through an item and what they are referring to is the restaurant spike used by chefs in kitchens. A tall spike where they slide the orders through, and the chef is still able to read the ticket, yet it is in a safe and secure place.

Backlog Refinement

As the developers work through backlog refinement, they will find items that they simply don’t understand. A user story may have been created for the item, but the developers may not understand the problem or can’t break the item down into smaller elements that empower them to build the product or feature.

  • They don’t understand what the problem is.
  • They don’t understand why the item is on the backlist.
  • They don’t understand how this item fits into the big picture.
  • They don’t understand what needs to be created or solved to fulfil the item.

In essence, it is an item that needs further research and discussion to fully comprehend and action.

The extreme programming world created the concept of the spike, and it has been adopted across the agile world as a good way to deal with anomalies or problems in the backlog.

Research Tasks

You may have a team of developers examining a backlog item and recognising that there are four (4) or more ways to solve the problem or build the feature. All four approaches have merit, and the team don’t understand which of these approaches will deliver the best outcome.

The team may be asking:

  • Which of these approaches will deliver the best outcome?
  • What are the pros and cons of each approach?
  • Will the solution we have in mind actively solve the problem?
  • Which approach will deliver the highest value to the customer or end-user?

In this scenario, it is highly likely that the team will choose to spike the item and recommend more research to answer the question effectively. That may be assigned to a developer, or it may be sent back to the product owner for clarification and recommendations.

Ultimately, it is simply a request for more information and deeper insight that will empower the team to decide how best to solve the problem or build the feature.

Timebox the item

One of the decisions that are critical in the domain of spikes, is deciding how much time will be dedicated to research and identifying the best way forward.

It serves no purpose and creates very little value if the spike simply acts as a secondary backlog where things go to die. They are being spiked precisely because these items matter, need to be correctly understood, and require a resolution.

In the world of Scrum, teams are encouraged and trained to timebox items.

Those timeboxes exist for everything from the daily scrum to the sprint planning and sprint retrospective events. Spikes are no different. They require a reasonable timeframe within which to complete the research and move the spike back into the sprint backlog for action.

The team, in collaboration with the product owner, may decide to swarm on the item to fully understand the problem. Two or three developers may take the day to do the research and then report back to the team on what they have discovered and what their recommendations are.

The team can then decide to bring the item back into the sprint and action the item.

Critical Analysis

One of the great things about spikes is that they help develop the critical analysis capabilities of the team. As the researchers examine the spike, they are examining all elements of the problem and report back to the team what their line of reasoning is behind the recommendations they are making.

Option A might be cheap and fast to do but deliver X outcome, whilst Option B is more expensive and takes more time but ultimately delivers a far better long-term outcome than Option A.

Option C will do the job but doesn’t improve the product or delight the customer and so it isn’t a viable option.

Their line of reasoning combined with the pros and cons behind each recommendation empowers the team to inspect and adapt more effectively. In essence, to become more responsive based on great arguments and recommendations that align with organizational and customer objectives.

So, spikes can be a great way to deal with anomalies and improve the team’s capabilities.

About John McFadyen

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