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Commitment Under Pressure

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Srinivas is the co-author of “Essentials of Scrum practice“- a mini-book
currently in a draft stage. This is an extract from the book.

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure that burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
It's the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out

The hidden hobbler of Scrum teams: Pressure

One common problem Scrum teams face is in the difficulty of meeting their sprint goals, followed by increasing pressure, which seems never-ending. Such teams don’t see sustained significant improvement and can quickly fall into a death march mode, or a jaded plodding with longer hours but no end in sight. Such situations are due to their choosing sprint goals (targets) under duress in some form. The ill effects of such commitments are not easy to understand or link to the cause. The inviolate Scrum principle in this regard is that the team chooses the extent of the backlog which it’ll deliver. Team requires to have a fair shot at making an independent, free commitment for their sprint, after all they are the ones who do the work. Mainly managements are worried that the teams will under commit. Hence they may treat the whole affair as a negotiation game.  As entertaining explication of such games is provided by Rob Thomsett. Software development is very commonly done under pressure, and this makes it seem as though this is very normal, and possibly the only way to work. A good anti-dote to such thinking can be found within Tom DeMarco’s entertaining “Slack”.

What do we do when the pressure to finish is so much, that there is no choice left to the team.
Don’t buckle under pressure, and stick to the Scrum principle (i.e make an independent and genuine commitment), however this is much easier said than done. Many projects have deadlines in some form, based on a marketing wish or executive fiat. Since organisations need to make plans, what upper management wishes for, may be necessary. Trouble is in the making, when this wish is widely out of line with reality. What organisations do poorly, is handle the difference between an original high level plan (based on executive wish or even a high level estimate) and the reality as the devil in the details appear. The Scrum approach is to do planning in small bits (2 weeks) and improve continuously by ‘inspect and adapt’. In our experience, far too many projects and managers are worried about the success of any given sprint and don’t give a chance for the team to learn and improve, hence endangering a number of future sprints and ultimately the entire project. A difference is made if a couple of steps were to be taken before the sprint starts:

1. Get an agreement from management that the team be free to choose the extent of work they commit to; offer to be transparent regarding why such a choice is made.
Essentially this means that the details of the sprint planning meeting is made available to the larger organisation. Management also needs to support the Scrum Master in his/her task of protecting the team from any external pressure. Now the Scrum Masters job is easier, if he/she also provides transparency into the Sprint Planning Meeting, by highlighting significant events in a MOM, as well as, circulating the sprint backlog/plan itself after the meeting. Normally the sprint backlog, with estimated hours for each task totaled and compared with available time, will give a realistic view of what is within the realm of possibility for the team to take up.

2. Explain the distinction between a real commitment that the team makes, believes in, as well as is serious about, as opposed to a perfunctory commitment made under duress.
Pressure to finish fast exists in most organisations. However, better the protection a team can be provided, to demonstrate to the team that their honest views are truly valued, better the commitment from the team and the teams attempt to meet this commitment. Fair and transparent planning will mean that team will not knowingly under-commit. Once a true commitment is in place the team, they should be supported by the Scrum Master and the management will do all in their power to meet the sprint goals. An unrealistic deadline imposed may make the team work harder, but they are unlikely to learn and also this will not be sustainable. In fact there is a very good chance that team members will take a fair stab at pretending to work hard. What the Scrum Master and the management can do is replace pressure with motivation. Any pressure must only be peer pressure, generated naturally, not imposed from higher up.

An intangible, but important effect of an open transparent sprint commitment made freely, is that the team sees it’s opinion valued even by management. They are being treated as professionals. I’ve yet to hear of any one, however powerful, saying to a surgeon “You have to do my gall bladder operation in 45 mins, now! and not take 3 hours as you say it’ll take”.

Further more, if after all this discussion we still have a situation where pressure cannot be held off, either due to the unwillingness of people to be open, or the unwillingness of management (briefly glossing over the fact that management also consists of people, of  a sort) to accept bad news, then the Scrum master must present the actual versus the hoped for amount of functionality delivered after the sprint in a neutral communication as a means for the organisation to learn. Many organisations take time to learn so this can be a long drawn out process. Remember Scrum Masters can do this easily, if they are not directly responsible for the success of any and every given sprint, which is typically the case with a project lead. It is well worth noting that a ScrumMaster is not a new glorified label project lead, but an enabler and protector of a team, which alone is responsible for delivery.

Finally, a thought on how breaking the Scrum principle leads to long term undesirable side effects. When the team members realise, that management just wants unrealistic results and is unwilling to listen and act upon information provided in good faith by the team, their motivation drops. Also they have no further incentive to provide bad news ahead of time, and the slide to micro-management is fast. This also means they stop caring for the project as professional pride is buried. Therefore they will go through the motions; not the most inspiring and driven crew, who will be apathetic at the best of times or even hostile.

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure – that burns a building
down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out

Manager! Leave the team alone!

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We don’t need no disruption
We don’t need no time control
No breathing down the neck in the server room
Manager, leave the team alone.

What do we do if a senior manager is asking for a ‘resource’ from within the team, in the middle of a sprint, to deal with some urgent matter?

As with a lot of things, this is better preempted, by informing as much of the surrounding organisation as possible before the start of a Scrum project, that we have to keep a team constant for at least the duration of a sprint. In other words the organisation should understand that the ‘NO CHANGE RULE’ is critical and central to the Scrum way of working.

However, senior managers may not pay sufficient attention to this or feel that whatever is occupying their minds at the moment is of utmost importance, and they can pull ‘resources’ (actually people) out without too much consideration. It is the Scrum Master’s job to protect the team, and as such does throw the Scrum Masters into a very difficult situation. The organisation culture will be a dominating factor in how people (SM included) behave. In many organisations the hierarchical structure combined usually with a command and control culture means that Scrum Masters are either powerless in face of such disruption or get into a downward spiral of de-motivation. This effect should be highlighted after the sprint end, to the management including any effects on how the team struggled to meet the sprint goal.

The Scrum Master in such circumstances should talk to the team and PO, and if applicable to the PO’s manager (who could be the senior manager in question) about the side-effects of pulling someone out mid-sprint.

Organisations where everyone is well-educated about Scrum, will seldom face such a situation without being able to make corrections and recover fast. This situation is particularly difficult in organisations which are largely ignorant of Scrum and the attendant principles. So it is important to respond to this situation without using jargon in such settings.

Speak in terms of disruption, de-motivation and relative importance of the sprint goal versus the work the pulled out ‘resource’ will do, versus the importance of adhering to the rules of the game. Such a conversation should also guide the persons making this decision to think in terms of ramifications of such requests and induce an inclination for senior managers to talk to the PO and SM before making any such requests/orders to pull out people, in the future.

All this engenders a culture where disruptions are kept to a minimum and only for good, genuine reasons. A relevant point here is the case when in response to a management edict coming from much higher-up, and in essentially a knee-jerk reaction, someone is pulled out even before it is really clear what exactly needs to be done. In other words the person pulled out cannot really begin work, since certain clarifications are still being sought. In such cases the useful practical steps to take consist of the Scrum Master taking a close look, spending sometime to discuss this with relevant team member, so they are prepared, wait till the end of the Sprint, so there is minimal disruption. Then after the sprint ends, the team can be reset, with a freshly updated backlog, which may include this ‘urgent’ piece of work; alternatively the person in question will not be part of the team for the new sprint, and works independently.

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