Case for starting with longer sprints

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At last something reasonably sensible here, from a big Indian services company regarding Scrum. I say reasonably, because the conclusions arrived at are largely correct, whereas a couple of points made in support reveal an underlying thinking which is slightly questionable. I shall proceed to answer the Q of an “ideal” sprint length before returning to take apart the article referred to above.

Most Scrum teams use two week sprints and a few even one week sprints.  In some organizations where iterations have been about 3 months, or more in length or even worse a classic waterfall (Before Scrum) teams have a real problem starting with two week sprints. Much of this is in the mind. It is common for people in such projects to feel (or even ‘know’) that nothing can be achieved in two weeks. So, there is considerable reluctance to pick a two week sprint. Now the question is what should be the length of the first few sprints?

Something of a storm in a tea cup, is how I see it; There is no doubt in my mind that a two week sprint (with suitably small units functionality as backlog items) is what the doctor ordered. However in these times of diminished authority, quite a few people seem to duck clinical instructions, let alone heed good advice. So, a logical (at least superficially) decision is made where in a much longer sprint length is chosen.  If it were of four weeks, that is still within the rules of Scrum, but not a good choice. I’ve even seen a two month sprint taken up as how to proceed with Scrum, which  really is a marvelous illustration of how NOT to do Scrum. Basically the underlying problem is once again the lack of realisation that Scrum is really a rather radical departure from the traditional waterfall way of completing projects. Not an embellishment of the old ways of working with the latest jargon, minus the real intent, which in turn simply results in Scrum-but.

So why is a long sprint three weeks or more a problem?

1) Loss of feedback (course correction opportunity): Essentially there are fewer opportunities for the PO and functional stakeholders to get to know the growing system and provide feedback.

2) difficulty of holding on to the “NO CHANGE RULE”, particularly the part where the sprint goal has to be held fixed; i.e no changes to the stories picked up by the team at time of SPM (sprint planning meeting) are to be allowed, is increasingly difficult to maintain as the length of sprint increases.

3) Effectiveness of retrospective: One of the most important environmental conditions for a good retrospective is that people should remember what happened during the sprint. The only other even more important condition is openness and assurance of safety. Most people cannot recall many (unremarkable, but important) details beyond last week. That’s a two week span. So once a sprint is longer than two weeks, we have a memory retention problem, unless the team maintains a detailed activity log. Yeah right!

4) Reduced planning effectiveness: As the time horizon increases, it becomes more difficult to plan for the entire timebox. It is substantially more difficult to plan a longer period of activity realistically than a short one. A weakness of long term planning ability exists in most software project groups.

In fact all the above means, it is imperative that teams improve their ability to plan (a major underlying factor is estimation, but that is another long story), make progress, correct and then build upon what has already been achieved.  Basically do the “inspect and adapt”. So in a way more opportunities the better. Hence a shorter cycles are better.

OBERVATIONS on the Cognizant article

(Overall I think the article is well written and has many aspects covered well)

Pl refer to table in the article.

A flawed line of thinking here is “Adaptation to uncertainty in story creation”, which talks about stories crossing sprint boundaries. This assumes that stories are going to be large. Actually they can be quite small. Short cycles can be handled if the organisation and team learn to break functionality into sufficiently small blocks (here is an interesting thought on this matter). This is a skill that needs to be developed, and time after time many people have discovered that the most complex application can be broken down into block that need a couple of people to work on it for a couple of days. So ideally for a two week sprint a team of about seven people about 8 to 15 stories (or sub-stories, if you prefer) can be picked up.

An argument made by armchair planners against short sprints is that the overheads will take up a greater percentage of time as a whole (as possibly being hinted by the above article; see 32,16,11 and 8 days). However for shorter sprint the planning, review and retrospective times will also come down;  Of course time spent arranging for these meetings may go up, since number of meeting per month will increase. However this is a matter of habit, if everyone soon gets used to weekly meetings (each meeting of shorter duration) this will actually be a negligible overhead, with a tremendous amount of learning and correcting being generated. So a shorter sprint is better than a longer sprint.  So item 1 “Ceremonial days” in the table isn’t quite right.

The other (more worrying) point made is that about procrastination;  Use of sprint burndown chart correctly will actually circumvent this! In fact very long sprints may just increase pressure on the team since there is a real possibility that team will struggle to meet sprint goals towards the end of a sprint. There is a real danger of falling into a serious waterfall mode every long sprint. Teams don’t seriously examine their way of working and change to get as far away as possible from the waterfall. In fact in this matter the article seems to lie on a resource (read people) utilization perspective and the worry that people are not going to be busy all the time, easily confusing activity for progress; which is fairly anti-Scrum in approach.

Another issue with the article is the point about “minimum number of days spent testing”! This is really puzzling.  Is less “testing” days better, or worse!?! I’ve no idea what this article considers better, let alone what the thinking behind this is. In reality it depends heavily on the context of the project, the abilities of the team members,  automation involved (rightly or wrongly)… so many ifs and buts. In fact Scrum does not even attempt to prescribe this.

So the main root point in favour of a long sprint is the comfort of the team and managers involved coming from a waterfall habit! This is really a question of willingness, understanding and realization of the people involved in the project. Not something to be sneered at, maybe a coach can help.  He/She must show sensitivity to this, and do all possible to show the team how to break down user stories into smaller blocks of functionality.

In closing…everything else points to shorter sprints. A two week sprint is strongly recommended and indeed used by many, many successful Scrum teams.

PS: The points made above may seem like a merciless slating of a deeply flawed article, but not so, the article itself makes many good points from a certain level of Scrum understanding.  I think it analyses the various factors of making the sprint length decision fairly well. Here I am simply attempting to provide a deeper understanding of how to think through this matter.

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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