[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.

Bad Agile Management Burns Scrum Teams

Last month Giles Bowkett wrote a scathing blog post about scrum called: Why Scrum Should Basically Just Die in a Fire. It’s a provocative article that shows how damaging bad agile and scrum can be to a team.

Ms. Glaze | Flame | Flickr

Ms. Glaze | Flame | Flickr

I’m not going to go point by point and argue with Mr. Bowkett about his experiences with scrum. They are his experiences, and they are truly awful. I have sympathy for him and those who have been burned by a botched agile transformation.

With waterfall, teams know what they are signing up for at the start of a project. They know there will be problems and that a death march is likely. They also know that the date set at the beginning of the project is likely wrong, but still they soldier on.

But with agile and scrum it’s supposed to be different. The agile manifesto is a developer play aimed at making the lives of engineers better. Scrum specifically puts the team in control of how they accomplish their work. Everything should be great.

But often, it isn’t.

Mr. Bowkett makes this point by calling out many common scrum anti-patterns that he has experienced:

These are all valid – and unfortunately common – problems on scrum teams. However, the conclusion that he draws from the existence of these problems misses the mark.

In other words, in its best-case scenario, Scrum’s a dog-and-pony show. But that best-case scenario is rare. In the much more common case, Scrum covers up the inability to recruit (or even recognize) engineering talent, which is currently one of the most valuable things in the world, with a process for managing engineers as if they were cogs in a machine, all of equal value.

Rather than cover up individual inabilities, scrum exposes the bad practices of organizations. Quickly. Work becomes transparent, impediments become obvious, and old practices become extra painful.

The culprit here are manager who thought they were getting hyper-productivity for free. They want the benefits of scrum, without having to change.

Mr. Bowkett’s problem is with lousy managers, not scrum.

The agile community is also partially to blame. The tendency is to focus coaching and training on the scrum team. But it is the management team members that we need to be working on the most. Bad scrum cannot take root in an organization that embraces the scrum values from the top down.

Part of embracing the scrum values is accepting the twelve principles of agile from the agile manifesto, which Mr. Bowkett also railed against.

I don’t think highly of Scrum, but the problem here goes deeper. The Agile Manifesto is flawed too. Consider this core principle of Agile development: “business people and developers must work together.” Why are we supposed to think developers are not business people?

We’re not. The intent of this agile principle is the end the “us vs them” mentality between IT and “the business”. With Scrum, the expectation is that the product owner is co-located with the development team and available to answer questions about the product backlog items.

This isn’t a slight against the business acumen of developers. It’s a call for close collaboration between stakeholders and engineers. How else can the development team know if they are working on the most valuable features for the business?

Question: Have you been a part of a poor agile transformation? What went wrong? How could things have gone better? You can leave a comment by clicking here.