[QUESTION] Why Do Scrum Teams Call Agile Iterations “Sprints”?

The Scrum Guide tells us what a “sprint” is and gives best practices around duration and timing, but it says nothing about why scrum teams call iterations “sprints” in the first place.

phgaillard2001 | le depart | flickr

phgaillard2001 | le depart | flickr

This question actually came from a podcast that I listen to called This Agile Life.

John Sextro, Craig Buchek, Amos King, Jason Tice, and Lee McCauley publish this weekly podcast about life as agile coaches and developers.

On This Agile Life episode #64, the topic was Giles Bowkett’s blog post – How Scrum Should Just Basically Die in a Fire. I recently blogged about this same post, but did not comment on Mr. Bowkett’s disagreement with Scrum calling agile iterations “sprints”:

Scrum’s an agile development methodology, and one of its major goals is sustainable development. However, it works by time-boxing efforts into iterations of a week or two in length, and refers to these iterations as “sprints.” Time-boxed iterations are very useful, but there’s a fundamental cognitive dissonance between “sprints” and “sustainable development,” because there is no such thing as a sustainable sprint.

The This Agile Life crew zeroed in on this criticism and mused about asking Jeff Sutherland why he decided to call scrum iterations “sprints”. Fortunately, Mr. Sutherland has a new book out called Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time AND he answered this question:

And so my team embarked on what we called “sprints”. We called them that because the name evoked a quality of intensity. We were going to work all out for a short period of time and stop to see where we were.

With the origin story in mind, the “sprint” label makes sense for scrum teams:

  1. The goal is intensity:  Scrum teams are laser focused on a sprint goal and work diligently on their sprint backlog items to turn their stories in to working software.
  2. Scrum teams take time to catch their breath: At the end of each sprint is a sprint review meeting. During the sprint review meeting, scrum teams stop to examine the sprint activities, the latest increment of software the team delivered, and the product backlog. The scrum team also conducts a sprint retrospective to examine how the team got to where they are and how they can do things better during the next sprint.
  3. Sprints are short for a reason: Mr. Bowkett is correct when he says that there is no such thing as a sustainable sprint. But short (2-4 week) sprints with time taken to inspect and adapt the work IS sustainable. Not stopping at the end of the time box jeopardizes sustainable pace as does going past the 1 month maximum sprint length.

Inspecting scrum is a great way to become a better agile practitioner. Podcasts like This Agile Life and blogs like Mr. Bowkett’s are great places to help you think about scrum and deepen your understanding about the practices that you use every day. It’s a tip that I’ve given in the past, but I cannot stress it enough as a great way to improve.

In this case, we learned that the label “sprint” is meant to give teams a sense of urgency, but with the intention of taking rest after the intense work it takes to turn sprint backlog items in to increments of software.

Question: What do you think about the term “sprint”? Does it express the right intention, or is it time to go back to “iterations”? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Scrum Teams Must Set Goals for Their Agile Metrics

Knowing what you want to find before you start looking seems like common sense. Yet many agile and scrum teams blindly gather metrics without really knowing what they want to learn from the data.

Erika | Target | Flickr

Erika | Target | Flickr

The way that most scrum teams approach agile metrics reminds me of the exchange between Alice and The Cat in Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland.

In this scene, Alice has come to a fork in the road and is unsure which way to go:

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice did not have a goal in mind while she was traveling along the road, and neither do most scrum teams when they set out to capture agile metrics.

Scrum teams can quickly become enamored with the amount of data that can be collected during a sprint. Story points, velocity, cost per story, cost per story point, throughput, number of stories per sprint, escaped defects, team health, and customer satisfaction are just a few examples off the top of my head.

Give the wide range and complexity of agile metrics that we could capture, we should accept a simple truth about these calculations:

The agile metrics that scrum teams collect are meaningless unless they are driven by a goal.

Why do you track velocity sprint after sprint? Because a training class said to? Or because you read about it in a blog post? No way!

There should be a problem that the scrum team is seeking to either solve or understand with every agile metric that they are collecting. With velocity, a scrum team could be trying to gauge their sustainable pace. Or perhaps they want to provide a means to help the product owner with release planning.

The actual goal is not as important as making sure that the team has one in the first place.

During a particularly difficult sprint retrospective meeting, one of my scrum teams noticed that they were struggling to deliver all of the stories that they committed to during consecutive sprints.

After some discussion, the team decided to track estimated story points per sprint and velocity. The difference between the two numbers would be called “found work”.

The scrum team decided that the goal of tracking these agile metrics – and particularly “found work” – was to measure changes in effort over the course of a sprint. The team felt that effort increased over time, which cause them to miss their sprint goals.

After a few sprints, the scrum team learned that the estimated effort was significantly increasing. But the numbers cannot tell you where the problems actually are. The root cause could have been one of many things:

  • Perhaps the scrum team was not properly grooming their product backlog items which led to “found work” during the sprint.
  • Maybe the scrum team’s definition of done was too stringent given their level of engineering practices which caused an increase in effort to deliver the stories included in the sprints.
  • It’s even possible that after digging deeper the scrum team learned that the relationship between the scrum product owner and the stakeholders was strained which led to poor communication and incomplete product stories.
  • Progressive elaboration could also have been taking place. The scrum team could simply be learning throughout the sprint and everything could be ok.

With the goal of their agile metric work realized, the scrum team focused on the problem during their next sprint retrospective. They were able to realize the high “found work” metric meant that too many epics were being added to the sprint backlog.

Not grooming their stories and slicing them in to smaller pieces hid much of the complexity that the scrum team was agreeing to take on sprint after sprint.

This particular team added a “3 touch rule” for stories to their definition of done. In order for a story to be eligible to be added to a sprint backlog, it had to be groomed and estimated at least 3 times by the team. This change led to the scrum team being more consistent at hitting their sprint goals.

Metrics are alluring, but they can also be deceptive and more importantly abused. Scrum teams should be intentional about how they collect agile metrics, the goal of the data, and what decisions will ultimately be made. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of collecting the data in the first place?

Question: Does your scrum team collect metrics that do not have clear goals assigned to them? How are these agile metrics used? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Scrum: Velocity Measures Story Points, Not Productivity

Scrum teams rely on metrics to inspect and adapt. Taken too far, the metrics tend to lose value and in some cases cause harm.

Robert Donovan | Velocity | Flickr.com

Robert Donovan | Velocity | Flickr.com

Last week I wrote about 5 agile metrics to measure high-performance scrum teams. At the top of the list was the most controversial metric that scrum teams use: velocity. This seemingly simple metric is just a measurement of how much effort a scrum team can complete within a given sprint.

Velocity is – in its simplest form – the sum of the story points completed in a sprint.

The temptation that many organization face is to turn velocity in to a performance metric.

For instance, I was recently asked what I thought about setting an objective to increase the team’s velocity by 10% by the end of the year. My answer: It’s a terrible idea.

  1. Encourages gaming:  An intelligent scrum team will realize that if they gradually inflate their estimates over the course of a year they will hit their 10% objective – WITHOUT delivering more value to the organization.
  2. Increasing velocity is not the goal of scrum:  We are interested in delivering valuable, high quality software to our companies in a sustainable way. How does a 10% increase in velocity get the scrum team there?
  3. Quality suffers as a result:  A scrum team that is forced to increase velocity will have to make tradeoffs to complete the additional stories required to get the numbers higher. Quality inevitably suffers when these types of decisions are made.
  4. Lots of unknowns:  Scrum team members leave the company, they get sick, and go on vacation. An estimation can also be way off – it is an ESTIMATION. If the scrum team learns something new about a story, velocity can dramatically go up or down.

Another idea that managers try is to compare the velocity of one scrum team with another. This is usually an attempt to normalize velocity across multiple scrum teams. It’s a meaningless comparison as scrum teams have different skills, goals, tools, and approaches to estimating work.

Flame wars often flare up over questions like: “Does a scrum team get credit for the story points related to bug during a sprint?”

Some scrum team members say, “Yes! We did the work and it should show on our velocity.” Others say, “No way, you already got credit for that story and are now cleaning it up. No double dipping!”

Mike Cohn did a great job of answering the question here. Essentially, he says pick whichever way makes sense to your team and be consistent. Easy, right?

Questions like these come up regularly and show a general lack of understanding of how velocity should be used.

Velocity is a limited metric that can only tell you what you achieved in the past and could possibly do in the future. During sprint planning it can help a team avoid over committing. During a sprint retrospective an up or down trend in velocity could lead to a discussion about the team’s definition of done or other team practices.

And there is the value that comes from tracking velocity. It is in the conversations that it causes the scrum team to have. These discussions are opportunities for the team to inspect and adapt their practices. The new insights will hopefully lead to more valuable, working software being delivered to the organization.

Which is important because according to the Agile Manifesto, “Working software is the primary measure of progress.”

Question: Which metrics do you use to drive conversations on your scrum team? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

5 Ways to Improve Your Scrum Game

With most games there are methods to getting better. Baseball players take batting practice, chess players solve tactical puzzles, and golfers practice the same swing over and over to improve accuracy and distance. But what about the game of scrum? What can scrum masters focus on to sharpen their skills?

5 Steps to Learning Scrum

(“Learning” by Anne Davis 773 from Flickr.com)

During a particularly difficult daily scrum meeting I noticed that the team was asking a lot of questions about scrum basics. When does the next sprint start? Why is this meeting only 15 minutes? Why do we have to table technical details until later? The entire team had just gone through scrum training and should have known these things.

At the end of the daily scrum I asked the team one final question:  Who here has actually read the scrum guide? Not every hand went up. I strongly suggested to the team that they read the scrum guide as soon as possible, and this is also my first suggestion for you:

  1. Read the Scrum Guide…Often:  I read the scrum guide 2-3 times per week. Why? Because each time I read it something new stands out to me. The time spent here is an opportunity for me to inspect my own understanding of scrum and to gain new insights.
  2. Focus on Relationships:  Not all problems can be solved with unit tests and pair programming. XP practices aside, poor relationship between the product owner and the end users can lead to requirements not being understood and features being rejected. Practice using the “Five Why’s” in cases where you suspect relationships are an issue. It is an effective tool that moves the conversation from the technical to the interpersonal very quickly.
  3. Inspect the Artifacts:  When reading the scrum guide, apply the pillars of agile (transparency, inspection, and adaptation) to the artifacts of scrum. The definition of done is an interesting place to start. It is a list of criteria that must be met before a feature can be called “done” (transparency). It is used by the developers and product owner to evaluate features during a sprint (inspection). During the sprint retrospective, the definition of done can be improved to meet the needs of the upcoming sprint (adaptation). Applying the pillars to the scrum artifacts is a great way to understand the “why” of scrum.
  4. Favor Empowering the Team:  One of the hardest tasks for a new scrum master is removing impediments. The urge is to jump in and solve the problems as they come up. But this does not create an empowered team. To truly empower a team, the scrum master must get comfortable with a key question. How can I coach the team to remove this impediment? Apply this question regularly and your teams ability to handle issues will grow.
  5. Promote Self-Organization: Scrum explicitly gives the power back to the developers. Respect this! Your developers know who is needed on the team to accomplish the sprint goal. Trust them to get the right work to the right people. Enable them to determine how the work will be done. Rules and mandates that come from outside of the team often end up as impediments during the daily scrum meeting.

It’s the soft skills that help us get better at scrum. In a profession where technical skills go a long way, this can be a scary. The good news is that you get better at scrum by being aware. The practices above promote awareness and lead to questions scrum masters should be asking themselves and the team members on a regular basis.

These discussions bring out a deeper understanding of scrum, which is bound to take your scrum skills to the next level.

Question: Do you think scrum is like other games that can be practiced? If so, which “drills” do you use to get better? If not, why? You can leave a comment by clicking here.