[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.

[QUESTION] The Product Owner Says #NoEstimates From the Team. Now what?

What would you do if your Scrum Product Owner decided that customer value should be the sole focus of the scrum team and therefore wants to eliminate estimation (#NoEstimates) from the scrum development team’s process?

Kerrin Asmundson | Free Estimates | Flickr

Kerrin Asmundson | Free Estimates | Flickr

Perhaps the scrum product owner read the exchange between Neil Killick and me and decided that #NoEstimates is the way to go. Is it possible that I failed to express the benefits that estimates can bring?


But in this case, the answer is pretty simple. As a scrum master I would remind the scrum product owner that he/she does not have control over the team’s practices or their estimates. There is a misconception in some organizations that a product owner is a “manager”.

This simply isn’t true.

The scrum product owner is responsible for optimizing the value of the scrum development team does. This is primarily achieved by providing a well refined and prioritized product backlog.

Scrum teams are self-managing and own their processes. The team is responsible for continually inspecting their practices and results – usually in a sprint retrospective – looking for continuous improvement.

Following that explanation, I would then ask the team what they think about the scrum product owner’s request.

Scrum is a “developer play” after all. So it only makes sense to ask the team what value they see in estimating (or not estimating) their work.

If after such a discussion, the team decided to go the #NoEstimates route, I would fully support them.

There are some topics that the team would need to speak to with capacity being one of them. Forecasting for the product owner would be another. As long as the team as figures out how to meet these business expectations, then why not give #NoEstimates a shot? Scrum is based on empiricism. Inspect and adapt!

In this example, the scrum product owner decided that estimates are overhead. This sentiment is hard to disagree with. Estimates are pretty worthless. They expire quickly. When requirements change they expire even faster. Worse of all, estimates are almost always wrong.

But that is why scrum teams estimate often. We are not trying to hit a date or measure the accuracy of our estimates. Rather, scrum teams uses estimates to guide them on how much work they can complete in a sprint.

The estimates can also be used by the team to discover their sustainable pace and to forecast a few sprints out to see where stories (features) could be delivered. These activities have value to a scrum team and to the product owner during release planning activities.

But these benefits diminish if the estimates are not continually updated. During these multiple planning poker (estimation) sessions, the team learns quite a lot about the story in question and about each other. These interactions can lead to a much better team and product.

As a scrum master you should be looking for opportunities to empower your team to make their own decisions. In this case, the scrum product owner wanted to dictate how the team estimates (or doesn’t estimate) their work. Instead, the better approach is ask the team to discuss the idea and decide for themselves whether or not to give it a try.

Question: Have you ever taken an idea to the team that you may not have agreed with? What did the team decide? Did you support the decision? You can leave a comment by clicking here.