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Scrum as an Impediment to Agility

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Scrum as an Impediment to Agility

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As I’m working with smaller and more agile projects, I’m increasingly seeing the classic way that Scrum is executed as more of an impediment to agility than a helper.

This is especially the case when it comes to the classic Sprint Planning as described in the Scrum Guide:

  • “For example, two-week Sprints have four-hour Sprint Planning Meetings”
  • In the Sprint Planning Meeting part 1: “Development Team works to forecast the functionality that will be developed during the Sprint.”
  • In the Sprint Planning Meeting part 1: “Product Owner presents ordered Product Backlog items”
  • “Work planned for the first days of the Sprint by the Development Team is decomposed to units of one day or less by the end of this meeting”

I’ve seen many sprint planning meetings struggle for the same reasons again and again:

  • The user stories described by the product owner doesn’t fit the team’s way of working
  • The team dives into too many details on each user story to be able to break it down to the level required
  • The team blames the product owner for not providing enough details to the user stories
  • Most of the design discussions are considered to be over once the sprint starts
  • The forecasting/commitment to future velocity becomes a heated negotiation

If your project experienced these sorts of Sprint planning meetings, I would expect that the reaction of the project was to add meetings (“backlog grooming”), documentation and checkpoint prior to starting a new sprint. These activities would probably resulted in the product owner (team) spending less amount of time with the development team.

Scrum’s Sprint planning is assuming a situation where the product backlog is detailed for a considerable amount of time and where the ideal is that the product owner spends their time adding more details to the product backlog all the time.

The resulting projects have huge rigid backlogs describing the details for several months into the future. They communication between the users and developers is limited to the acceptance criteria that the product owner writes down before each sprint planning. They spend a considerable amount of the sprint planning the rest of the sprint. Deviations from the sprint backlog are considered problematic.

I think this is misguided. I think this is why we left waterfall in the first place.

In order for Scrum to work better, we have to abandon the idea that the product owner comes to the planning with a perfect set of stories, we have to abandon the sprint backlog detailing the work and design for several weeks and we probably should be very careful with what estimates we ask for.

Instead I would suggest the following approach to planning a sprint:

  • The product owner and the team comes into the room informed by their current understanding of the value the system can deliver
  • The product owner describes the current most important gaps in the value available to stakeholders
  • The team already knows their current trajectory and together with the product owner, they can describe “what’s the next meaningful thing we could demonstrate to closing these gaps” as a script for the next demonstration
  • The team isn’t asked to estimate their work, but the product owner, project managers and others are free to make qualified guesses based on the team’s past performance
  • Keep it short and frequent!

Scrum was developed in the time where it had to match the perception of projects that did huge batches of planning and design. In response, it does smaller batches of planning and design. But “give a man an inch and he’ll take a yard”. The smaller batches leads to frustration over lack of details and the sprints become more and more plan driven and the connection between the users and the developers more and more document-driven.

A new approach is needed.

New roadmaps, more flexible boards, and dozens of new integrations. And that's just the beginning.  


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