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I understand what a story spike is for, but I'd like to know what the significance of the term is. I don't immediately see the relationship between the word "spike" and what it represents in agile practices. Google searches only seem to reveal a hundred articles about what a story spike is for without answering that question.

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  • I see the title was modified to include the word "story". I've literally never heard anyone say "story spike". But I suppose it doesn't hurt anything and helps SEO?
    – BVernon
    Commented Mar 19 at 17:00

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If I remember correctly, the term comes from XP.

XP relies on technical practices such as TDD. See Why are TDD 'Spikes' called 'Spikes?.

And then a lot of Agile ideas were "borrowed" from XP. And Spike became synonym with an Experiment.

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TL;DR

Most of the easily searchable answers are wrong about the etymology of the term outside of (relatively recent) agile or software development usage. The term actually has a much longer historical context, some of which is more relevant than others to its current usage in agile program and project management.

If you're asking specifically about the fixed phrase [user] story spikes then you can find the term attributed to various agile frameworks and practices including Extreme Programming. However, the historical context may do a better job of explaining why it's a useful metaphor besides simply attributing it to "so-and-so applied it to user stories because..." The application of an historical term to a new context to denote a specific type of activity has less utility value than understanding the various connotations of the term.

Etymology & Metaphors

Physical Form and Business Functions

A physical spike is essentially a type of long nail that holds or pierces things, but such a shape has a much larger set of applicable business and process functions. In particular, physical spikes have a history in offices and other workplaces where they functioned as real-world last in, first out (LIFO) stacks.

In the software sense, Microsoft Word has (or possibly had) a feature called the spike that functioned as a stack. In pre-computerized offices and other workplaces, spikes were also used as FIFO stacks for non-electronic "data containers" such as stationary, restaurant orders, notes, messages, and documents. It was widely used both literally and metaphorically in journalism, copywriting, and publishing as a noun similar to a slush pile, or as a transitive verb largely attributable to journalism that generally meant killing a news story.

Regardless of the original intent in applying the term to user stories, today most practitioners use the term "story spike" as analogous to a skunkworks project for validated or targeted learning. However, thinking of it as a LIFO stack has some useful properties, too.

Metaphors Adapted to Agile Frameworks & Practices

As a metaphor for physical spindles or spikes, a story spike can be:

  • Something pushed onto the top of current stack of work to explore an idea, where the "spiked story" must be popped off the stack before the work underneath can continue.
  • A temporary holding place or transitional state for a work activity, in much the same way as messages or restaurant orders would be placed onto a physical spike for short periods of time to facilitate another activity such as returning a set of phone calls or batching up restaurant orders for the cook. This metaphor is particularly useful in conceptualizing the extremely time-boxed nature of a user story, where the spike is specifically intended to be short-lived and/or temporary.
  • As a place where ideas that don't pan out get killed off or deferred, much like the news editor's physical spike. In this sense, much like the journalism term, it doesn't necessarily equate to failure even of the agile "fail fast" variety; it just means the user story won't continue its journey through the rest of the iterative process at the present time. The output of such a story spike can either be discarded as in "killing the [news] story", or placed into the project's icebox or on the bottom of the backlog as in "putting the story into the slush pile."
  • As a place where the results of time-boxed learning or exploratory activities are held until they can be examined in batches, such as during Backlog Refinement or the next Sprint Planning event.

I will certainly grant that these metaphors aren't agile formalisms or directly attributable to any particular statements by early agile practitioners. I am deliberately providing definitional metaphors rather than appeals to authority on the matter.

These contextual metaphors provide a way of visualizing the utility value of story spikes. Since visualizing the work is itself a valuable practice that often confers agility, using relevant metaphors to visualize the various use cases for story spikes may help in the same way.

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    I feel like this answer belongs on english.stackexchange.com, lol. (that's intended as a compliment, if you were wondering). Thanks for the insight!
    – BVernon
    Commented Mar 19 at 17:06
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    @BVernon Thank you. Yes; as a moderator, I was on the bubble about the question as etymology is often off-topic here, but allowed on English Language & Usage. However, I looked at some of their existing answers on the topic, and they were...um, less than illuminating for this context. Since it was scoped specifically to agile terminology, I thought the question fit better here even if a correct answer might not be strictly scoped to project management. At any rate, thank you for your kind comment and keen eye for topicality!
    – Todd A. Jacobs
    Commented Mar 20 at 14:26

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