Extending the Scrum and Sprint Metaphors

Scrum uses the metaphor of a rugby team to convey the ‘directed autonomy’ of a ‘whole team’ working together to get the ball across the try line. Each member of the team has a role such as out-half, fullback or forward, but once the ball is in play, any member does whatever they can to progress towards the objective, regardless of their speciality. This is contrasted to a relay race team, where each member runs part of the race on their own, passing the baton at pre-determined points. This echos a waterfall process, with distinct roles and responsibilities and hand-offs between task specialities.
Another metaphor used in scrum is that of a sprint. During a sprint, distractions and interuptions to the team are minimised – the ScrumMaster has a specific responsibility to ensure they can focus purely on acheiving the preset sprint goals. This minimises context switching and multi-tasking which have been shown to be very wasteful, and increases the predictability of what will be delivered at the end of the sprint. But no-one can sprint all the time – if they try, then they are really just jogging. I like the sprint metaphor – there is one immediate, overwhelming objective and all distractions and other concerns are ignored until the sprint ends.  And during a sprint, ‘moving’ the goalposts is not allowed – no changes to the sprint goal or user stories and tasks is allowed (if this is necessary, then the sprint is cancelled). Just like a play in rugby, all focus is achieving one objective until the whistle blows.

But the ‘classic’ scrum method (Schwaber &  Beedle),  recommends each sprint is followed directly by another – sprints include ‘bookend’ events at the start and end, such as iteration planning, reviews, retrospectives, etc. Classic scrum also calls for just a little bit of distraction sprinkled throughout the sprint such as spending 5-10% of the time on ‘grooming’ the product backlog – allowing the next sprint backlog be prepared in advance of the subsequent sprint and therefore no need to dilly-dally before rushing into development again. Activities such as these require the focus of the team be diverted from the immediate sprint goal to focus on future stories and tasks.

I have a number concerns with this model.

  1. Distractions, multi-tasking and the consequent context switching are very disruptive to concentration and sap energy from a team. Try doing some real, focused work like writing a report or some complex code with constant interruptions such as calls and meetings about different topics – its very difficult to progress rapidly and steadily with the primary task. But people in the real world have to do ‘other’ stuff in the average workday: office communication sessions, performance appraisel with their boss, arrange or attend a presentation to another department, participate in the mentoring program, file travel expenses, attend the mandatory office security training session…..the list is looong. Sometimes a team will count on only 6 hours out of 8 being available for ‘real work’ because of these distractions. But how can you sprint efficiently if your not running 25% of the time? If you have to slow down, attend to something else, and then build up sprint speed again it is very wasteful.
  2. Agile purports to be an empirical control process – rather than planning the future based on experience of the past it instead uses an ‘inspect and adapt’ paradigm to continually refine the short-term plan based on present reality. In agile methods, this takes the form of getting feedback from stakeholders (customers, users) at the end of each iteration, and, based on that, building a plan for the next sprint. In many real world cases, the next sprint has already been substantially planned by the time the previous one is finished – team members have been grooming the backlog, breaking down stories and tasks, estimating, etc. Although this model impinges on the pure inspect-adapt model, many would see it as pragmatic – a sensible compromise to optimise utilisation of the team. However, I have seen this quickly lead to local optimisation (great for getting more work done, but not necessarily delivering more business value), premature investment in story elaboration, and erosion of team ownership of stories and estimates (since often one or two team members will work on stories for the next sprint while the remained deliver the current tasks). Reverting to the rugby metaphor, its like some players disengaging and setting up the next set piece before the play has ended.
  3. I discussed the idea of cadence in a previous post – cadence across teams and projects is a great basis for synchronising inter team communications. For example, in a multi-team project if one team is sprinting while the other is between sprints, there is little opportunity for joint reflection. If there is time set aside between sprints to synchronise between teams, and if the sprints start and end at the same time, it gives an opportunity for this communication. It also gives an opportunity to go ‘off-project’ and do all that ‘other stuff’ not directly related to the project. For example, what if performance reviews, training, presentation of company quarterly results, etc could only be scheduled between sprints – this would involve a cadence at the company level operating across all functions.

Again, like the rugby metaphor, I think a break from the flurry of play to take stock, tie your boot laces and plan the next move is an essential element of working effectively.

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