Archive for scrum tag

My Team Works Hard But We Never Seem To Finish. Why Not?

We’ve all experienced this. Your team seems to be working hard. In fact, you know your team is working hard because you’re right there in the trenches with them. But, no matter how hard your team works, they never seem to actually get anything finished.

If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. Most teams face this problem at some point in their development. However, despite how common this problem is it’s actually quite easy to overcome.

Why It Happens

To overcome this problem you first have to understand why it happens, in the first place. Most often this is due to two reasons.

First, it can happen because your team is accepting work from outside of the Sprint. This is the “can’t wait” work that wasn’t planned for during your team’s Sprint Planning, but reared it’s head after the Sprint has begun. Sometimes this happens because the Scrum Master is unable to head off a major stakeholder. Or sometimes the Scrum Master simply can’t make that stakeholder understand the impact that this new work will have on the team’s outcome. Or even other times, the Scrum Master may not even be aware of the unplanned work, in the first place.

But regardless of the reason, if your team is spending time working on unplanned work instead of the work they had planned for the Sprint, then they may look busy but they’re unlikely to finish what you expect them to.

Second, it can happen because your team is working on too much work at once. This can be counter-intuitive at first, but if your team decides to tackle all of their work at once then the team will make surprisingly little progress on any of their work. This is because the team’s total effort will be spread across a much wider surface area resulting the in team making very little forward progress.

In addition, on many teams when the amount of work in progress is not closely tracked, it can be common for some individuals to begin work on one item and then move to a second item before the first item is complete. Once again, this can create an image of very busy individuals on a team, but with very little actual work in result.

Luckily, there are solutions for both of these situations that will get your team back on track and back to finishing the amount of work that you know they’re capable of.

Make It Visible

In the first case, where the team is continuing to work on items outside of the Sprint, work with your team to craft a clearly defined Sprint Goal that describes the goal that the team should accomplish with the work in the next Sprint. Once your team is in agreement about the goal, share the goal with your stakeholders so that everyone understands what your team plans to accomplish during the next Sprint and how this Sprint Goal contributes to your overall product goals. Then, when outside work begins to appear during the Sprint, you can work with your stakeholders to evaluate how that work maps to the goal the team has selected for the Sprint and what effect accepting the work may have on that goal.

If you’re still unable to prevent the work from being worked on during the Sprint, then make a special effort to estimate the newly accepted work and add it the Sprint board. You can even dedicate a reserved row of the Sprint board for this type of work, or use a different colored card so the unplanned work is immediately obvious. This visual differentiation will make visible the impact that the unplanned work is having on the work that was originally planned in pursuit of the Sprint Goal. In addition, the estimated points will allow you to better communicate to your stakeholders during the Sprint Review what percent of the team’s effort was spent on work that didn’t directly contribute to the Sprint Goal.

Both of these actions will help your stakeholders stop thinking of the Sprint as an empty bucket that work can simply be poured into, and instead begin to think of the Sprint as a strategically planned batch of work that moves the team closer to a stated goal.

Limit Your Throughput

In the second case, where the team is working on too much work at once, work with your team to establish work in progress limits, commonly known as WIP limits, on the key states of your Sprint board.

A WIP limit restricts the number of items that can be in a given state at any time. For example, in the image below, a WIP limit of 3 has been assigned to the Development column and a WIP limit of 2 has been assigned to the Testing column. This means that at any given time, no more than 3 items can be in development at one time and no more than 2 items can be in test at one time.


What happens if the WIP limit is reached? Then your team must work together to figure out how to complete the items in the column where the limit has been reached to make room for new work, thus allowing more work to flow through the process.

For example, imagine that a developer on your team completes the an item and attempts to move it to the Testing column. However, the Testing column has already reached its limit. The developer must work with your team’s testers to understand how they can help clear the existing the items from the Testing column. This may mean that the developer needs to assist the tester with their work so they can complete the items currently waiting to be tested, or that that team as a whole needs to make a greater investment into automated testing so that the testing process is more efficient overall. Regardless of the solution, the new item cannot be added to the Testing column until the existing items have been cleared.

While at first, WIP limits may seem as if they would cause a team to move slower, the opposite is actually true. WIP limits incentive your team to move work to completion, rather than to simply start it. This results in more work being completed by your team which allows them to reach their goals faster.

Focus on Finishing

Many teams look busy but surprisingly few actually complete the amount of work that may be expected of them. But, by defining clear goals for each Sprint that your team can aim for, and then incentivizing them to focus on finishing the work required to complete those goals, you can ensure that your team actually delivers the value that your stakeholders expect.

Do you want to learn more about how you can help your team deliver work more efficiently? Check out my course series, Product Owner Fundamentals, to learn how you can help your team reach their highest potential and deliver a great product to market.

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Reverse User Story

Putting Value First With The Reverse User Story

User Stories are a great way to translate your users’ needs into real tasks that your team can work with. They’re succinct, lightweight, and flexible. But what if you could make them even better by moving the “why” of the story to the beginning?

To understand how you can improve them even further, let’s start by looking at an example of a User Story…

User Story format

This format answers the important questions clearly, but it keeps the most important part of the story…the benefit…until the end. The benefit, or the “So I can…” part of the story, is how you ensure that your team understands why they are building this story and how it will contribute to your overall vision for your product. Without clearly stating this benefit you risk adding functionality that doesn’t move your product towards its vision.

Saving this part of the story until the end means that we ignore it or even leave it out completely. The result of this is that the benefit of the story is shortchanged.

Turning the Problem on Its Head

The Reverse User Story, on the other hand, moves this important clause to the beginning of the story.  This format, inspired by the Reverse Stand Up, recognizes that the benefit is the most important part of the story and therefore it should appear first.  Building on the example above, our Reverse User Story would look like this…

Reverse User Story formatMoving the benefit to the beginning of the story forces your team to first think about the business value and resulting benefits of your work. If you’re unable to articulate a benefit for a story then this can be a warning sign that you don’t understand the story as well as you thought you did. This may mean that the story still needs fleshing out or even that it may not be worth the effort required to bring it to fruition.

Finding Balance…Or the Zen of Release Management

Bringing the expected benefits to the forefront can also aide in long term exercises like Release Planning. For example, if the majority of stories selected for a release seem to have similar benefits then this can be a hint at the theme that’s emerging for that release. Alternatively, if too many stories have the same benefit then this can serve as a warning that you’re weighing the release too heavily towards one specific feature set while starving another.

Shifting the focus to the benefit can also help identify stories in the backlog that are duplicating value. Recall that one of the goals of Scrum is to optimize the ROI of the development team. To this end, if more than one story is accomplishing the same end goal then this can be an opportunity to drop a duplicate story in favor of another that may bring more value to the product.

Drawing in the Team

Bringing the business goals of the story to the forefront draws the team into the discussion.  This can even lead to the discovery of alternative approaches as to how those goals may be met.

For example, recall that the original idea of your story was to allow a customer to save items for later.  You’d assumed that the only way to do this was to make their shopping cart persistent.  But, perhaps someone on the team suggests instead providing a wishlist where the customer could store items for long term. This would result in the story being changed to…

So I can save items for later,
As a customer,
I want to add items to a wish list.

This change may even spawn additional conversations regarding the opportunities that the wish list could open up. Perhaps the customer could share their wish list with friends who are shopping for them.  Or, maybe they could even post them to their social networks. This would give you the opportunity to also capture sales from friends of the customer.  This could even happen when your original customer isn’t quite ready to buy an item themselves.

None of these ideas would have ever been suggested if the developers had not first been encouraged to consider the overall benefit they were trying to achieve rather than simply focusing on the action.

Putting This Technique to Use

Though a Reverse User Story has many advantages over the format it still may not be right for every situation.  Specifically, the classic format’s simplicity and broad adoption make it a good choice as a starting point for introducing the concept of User Stories to new teams.

But, if your team seems to be missing the bigger picture of the stories or is becoming mired in the details then this twist on the classic format may be just what you need to shift everyone’s focus away from specific actions and back to the overall goal of the product.

Want to learn even more neat techniques to get the most out of User Stories? Check out my course, Creating Effective User Stories, for easy techniques that will have you writing better User Stories today.

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Start With Stickies, Not With Tools

The beginning of a Scrum adoption is always an exciting time for teams. The promise of what the future holds, a new way of working, and the possibility of a better way to do what the team loves always holds great potential.

But in this excitement, many teams rush into selecting a tool that will help them run their projects in this brave new world. This isn’t surprising, there’s no shortage of agile project management tools available and many of them shine in demos. But choosing a project management tool too soon confines your team to that tool’s approach, rather than allowing your team to discover the approach that works the best for them.

This can lead your team down the path of confusing discussions about the “right way” of operating and how the team can warp their process to meet the expectations of the tool. All of which can lead to a lot of unwarranted frustration with the team’s entire adoption of Scrum.

Starting on the Right Foot

So how do you avoid becoming a slave to your tool? Instead of choosing a tool too early in your Scrum adoption, begin your process as lightweight as possible. This can be done by simply creating a Scrum board on an empty wall in your team area from painter’s tape and a few pads of sticky notes.

When choosing the columns for your board just ask yourself what steps your team must take to deliver a piece of functionality to the market. We can assume that each feature must be coded, but what happens then? Is it peer reviewed by another member of your development team? Is it tested before release?

Whatever your delivery flow is, capture each step as a column on your Scrum board. Creating your board by hand gives you the flexibility to map out exactly what your delivery process looks like so it’s visible to everyone involved.

Only after you’ve discovered the process that works for your team should you consider finding a tool that supports that process.

Taking Responsibility for Your Process

But there’s another benefit to managing your team’s process by hand. Creating a board manually also requires your team to take responsibility for ensuring that the board is updated and always reflects the current state of each piece of work in progress. Is that authentication routine really still in progress? I thought it was tested yesterday? And what about the latest database migration scripts? The board says that they’re in progress but are you really working on them? Weren’t you busy with a production issue for the last two days? By forcing your team to take responsibility for updating the board each day you increase the odds that the Scrum board accurately reflects the work in progress.

Too many teams take a passive approach to their adoption of the Scrum Framework, relying on their tooling to manage the heavy lifting while they change very little about their way of working. The obvious result of this is that if the team changes very little about how they actually work, then very little actually changes. But by taking a hands-on and manual approach to tracking their project the team is forced to take responsibility for the progress they make day to day and to face tough questions when that progress isn’t what they expected it to be.

Limitations Breed Simplicity

But there is potentially an even bigger benefit to skipping an electronic tool early in the team’s adoption. This is that the natural limitations of a physical board drive a simplicity that simply can’t be matched by an electronic tool.

Electronic tools breed complexity with their multitude of options and seemingly infinite ability to capture detailed information. But a physical board naturally limits your team to focusing only on what is critical to their process. Do the columns on the Scrum board really reflect each step that your team takes to deliver a piece of functionality? If items seem to stay in certain columns for days with no obvious progress then you may be missing a step. Or, maybe you’ll notice that you seem to be trying to fit a lot of information on the the front of a sticky note. What if instead you simply captured the essence of what you’d like that item to accomplish and let the rest of the detail naturally emerge from a conversation between the Development Team and the Product Owner.

Many of the natural aspects of working with a physical board that are often initially considered to be limitations, turn out to be advantages when looked at from the broader perspective of the team’s overall process.

Letting Your Team Drive the Process

The surge in popularity of Scrum and other agile approaches have resulted in a flood of great agile project management tooling on the market, many of which have some great features and amazing functionality. While these tools can add value to a team who has reached a certain level of maturity in their agile approach, they are almost always the wrong choice for a team just getting started on their agile journey.

Use your team’s Scrum adoption as an opportunity to press the reset button and take the chance to discover the process that works best for them, rather than simply jumping into the process prescribed by the tool that demos the best. You’ll find that the long term result is a team that’s much more confident, happier, and effective in how they work. Because at the end of the day, your tool should support your process…not the other way around.

Are you new to the Scrum Master role and are just trying to find your way? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who has your feet wet but now you’re ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

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Scrum Master Demand Is at It’s Strongest Point Ever

It’s no surprise that the Scrum Framework is quickly becoming the framework of choice for teams interested in adopting an agile methodology.  In fact, VersionOne’s 2016 State of Agile Development survey puts the number of teams currently following a pure Scrum approach for their agile implementation at 58%. Furthermore, this number increases to 75% if you include hybrid approaches such as those which combine Scrum with another agile approach such as Kanban to create Scrumban.

But despite the simplicity of the Scrum Framework its adoption by a team new to an agile approach is still not for the faint of heart. If you’ve ever been on a Scrum team you’ll know that a large part of most team’s success is the presence of a skilled Scrum Master. This individual is responsible for ensuring that the team is adhering to the Scrum Framework in a way that helps them to deliver their product in the most effective way. Given the growth in popularity of the Scrum Framework it should come as no surprise that this growth is also fueling an unprecedented demand for Scrum Masters.

Scrum Framework Growth Breeds Scrum Master Demand

So much so, in fact, that the Scrum Master role has found itself square in the middle of LinkedIn’s list of The Most Promising Jobs for 2017. This list, culled from LinkedIn’s unique position to analyze job trends and growth, placed the Scrum Master role at #10 of the 20 most promising jobs for 2017. According to LinkedIn, this uptick in demand has given the role a median base salary of $100,000 USD and a year-over-year job growth of 400%, which will likely drive base salaries even higher as demand for the role continues to increase.

If you’ve seen many “hot jobs” lists in the past then the dominance of jobs from the tech sector should come as no surprise. As a matter of fact, 12 out of 20 jobs on LinkedIn’s Most Promising Jobs for 2017 list come straight from the technology sector.  So what makes the Scrum Master role any different?

Becoming a Scrum Master Is Easier Than You Think

LinkedIn’s Most Promising Jobs list contains many roles which are highly specialized and thus can require years of developing both specialized skills and experience, such as a Data Architect or Site Reliability Engineer.  But unlike these roles, the Scrum Master role can be very accessible for someone who already has a technical background which makes this path more of a lateral career move for many who are already in the tech sector.

This is because some of the most important skills for a successful Scrum Master are an in-depth understanding of your organization’s software delivery process and a willingness to connect with and build relationships with those both inside and outside of your team.  By combining an overarching view of the steps necessary for your organization to bring your product to market with a willingness to build relationships with those individuals who are involved each step of the way, you can build the skills necessary to clear the path for your team to keep them moving as efficiently as possible.  And this ability to keep your team on a clear path is one of the most important responsibilities for a Scrum Master.

This means that if you’ve already gained some experience in your organization’s software development ranks in a role such as a developer, tester, or designer and you like interacting with others in your organization then the Scrum Master role can be an attractive option for your career path and one that’s much more accessible than a highly technical specialization requiring years of training and experience.

What It Takes to Become a Great Scrum Master

If this appeals to you then you’re probably wondering what it takes to land a job as a Scrum Master. Well, in addition to the skills that I described above you’ll need a strong understanding of the practices and components of the Scrum Framework and the ability to help your team learn to interpret the Scrum Framework in the way that’s the most effective for them. You’ll also need a thorough understanding of the broader agile concepts and methods that the Scrum Framework embodies so you can be sure that your team is always adhering to the spirit of the agile methods that underlie Scrum.

But in addition to these skills, many candidates find that holding one of the more recognizable Scrum Master certifications can be a helpful step to getting their foot in the door. The most recognized of these certifications are the Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster© certification, commonly known as the CSM, and the Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master™ I certification, commonly known as the PSM I. You can see the specific requirements for each certification on the respective website of each certification body but, in general, the path to each certification includes attending a multiple-day in-person training event and then passing a written exam testing your knowledge of the Scrum Framework. However, while multiple-day training events are available for both certifications, please note that in the case of the Professional Scrum Master certification attending this event is not required before taking the exam, though it can be extremely helpful.

Building on Your Experience

Without question, in addition to a strong understanding of the inner workings of the Scrum Framework and a well respected certification, the most important ingredient for success as a Scrum Master is the ability to interpret and ford the political waters of your organization to help your team to succeed. This ability can be gained only by an investment of time in learning the ins and outs of the environment and culture in which you will function as a Scrum Master. This is because regardless of the number of certifications they’ve earned or the depth of their knowledge of the Scrum Framework, a Scrum Master who unable to navigate the trade winds of their organization will ultimately be ineffective.

The Scrum Master role can be an incredibly rewarding role for those interested in blending elements of technology, leadership, and business acumen in a way that allows them to help their team deliver great work in a way that’s both productive and enjoyable. And the recent surge in demand for individuals who are able to serve this role, combined with the lateral nature of moving into this role for those individuals who are already from a technical background paint a bright picture of the future demand for this role. All of these elements combine to make this role the ideal choice for anyone who is looking for the next step in their career or who is simply interested in trying their hand at something new.

Does the Scrum Master role sound like the right next step for your career? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who wants to become more effective in you role so you meet the increased demand for your skills? If so, then check out the course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

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3 Ways Product Owners Can Help with a Great Sprint Planning

A great Sprint Planning session sets the tone for the entire Sprint. Your team leaves the session energized, excited, and with a clear picture of how to hit the ground running in the new Sprint. But, what if things don’t go as well as you’d hoped? Then your team will leave the session tired and frustrated.  They will leave without a clear idea of how to get started on their new set of work. They may even leave without any idea of what their goal for the next Sprint even is.

If you’re a Product Owner, you may appreciate the importance of the Sprint Planning session but consider a successful planning session the responsibility of the Scrum Master. While this may be true, there are a few simple tricks that you can use to help your team get the most out of this critical ceremony.

Paint a Clear Picture

The Sprint Planning session is your opportunity to paint a clear picture of the upcoming Sprint and the objective that you hope to complete. But to do so, you must come prepared with both an engaging vision for your team as well as fully prepared to discuss the details of each Product Backlog item that you’ve selected to support that vision.

The details that you provide will be essential for helping your team appreciate the depth and complexity of the items that you’ve selected. And, it’s these details that will help your team give as accurate of an estimate, as possible.

Mind Your Body Language

Just accept it, it’s going to happen. Sometimes your team will throw an estimate on an item that’s higher than you expected. But when it does happens, how you react will play a major role in setting the tone for your relationship with your team.

On many teams, the Product Owner is treated as a figure of implicit authority. For this reason, it’s imperative that you be acutely aware of your body language, facial expressions, or any other behavior that may put pressure on your team to reduce their estimates.  Even if this pressure is inadvertent.

Pressuring your team to reduce their estimates won’t reduce the actual work behind the estimate and will only make your job harder.  This is because your own long-term planning lives and dies by the validity of the estimates that your team provides. If you pressure your team into giving inaccurate estimates then it will be your release plan that suffers in the end.

Instead of applying pressure, take this opportunity to ask questions. Why is the estimate higher than you expected? Or, what hidden complexity exists in the item that you didn’t see before? Taking the time to understand why the estimate is higher than you expected may reduce your chances of being surprised in the future.  In fact, it may even uncover an alternative path to achieving the same goal with less complexity.

Remember That Estimates Are a Forecast

Above all, remember that the estimates your team provides are a forecast…not a commitment. Holding a team to their estimates creates a culture of fear. And, in such cultures, your team will invariably begin to sandbag their estimates to protect themselves from the possibility of occasionally under-estimating an item.

Once this happens, your team will begin to continually pad their estimates to create a larger and larger margin of safety. The result, of course, being that the amount of actual work completed each Sprint will continue to dwindle.

But, there’s an even worse casualty of this trend. Learning can only occur when a team feels safe enough to embark on experiments and learn from their failures. If a team is punished for every mistake then all learning will eventually cease. And, without the ability to learn, your organization cannot hope to compete in the world of product development.

Helping Your Team Succeed

The role of the Product Owner is easily one of the most important roles on a Scrum Team but is also arguably the most difficult. The Sprint Planning session is your opportunity to invest in your relationship with your team each Sprint. Because it’s only with an ongoing investment in that relationship will your product see long-term success in the market.

Have you suddenly found yourself in the Product Owner role and want to know how you can use this role to help your team be successful? Check out my course series, Product Owner Fundamentals, to learn how you can help your team reach their highest potential and deliver a great product to market.

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Every Team Member Is a Scrum Master

There’s a saying in the US Navy that every sailor is a firefighter.  This is because when a ship is threatened by fire, there are few worse places to be than trapped on a ship, miles from land, with no place to go.  When this happens, regardless of your title, everyone on the ship becomes one thing and one thing only…a firefighter.

A similar principle could be applied to Scrum teams.

What If There’s No Scrum Master?

Scrum teams are comprised of 3 different roles…the Development Team, a Product Owner, and a Scrum Master.  The Scrum Guide tells us that the Scrum Master is the team member responsible for keeping the team on track within the context of the Scrum Framework and for helping the entire team perform at their highest potential.  This is great if you have a talented Scrum Master who’s always around to help the team.  But what happens when that person isn’t around?  Maybe she’s taken a vacation, has suddenly come down with the flu, or simply isn’t feeling up to the task?  If so, then the responsibility of keeping the team on track must fall to the other members on the team.

In times like these, every team member is a Scrum Master.

Does your team seem to be falling behind your expected velocity?  Or, are you in danger of missing your goal for the sprint?  If so, then it’s your entire team’s responsibility to pull together to understand why your velocity is less than you expected.  Or, to pull together to understand what you can do to accomplish your goal before the end of your sprint.

Is there someone on the team who seems to be struggling this sprint?  Or, is there someone who just doesn’t seem to be connecting with the rest of the Scrum team?  Then the rest of the team must work together to help that individual find their footing and get back to producing at the level that they’re truly capable of.

It’s Everyone’s Responsibility

When the sprint is in trouble, it’s everyone’s responsibility to to help right the ship…not just the Scrum Master.  Sure, the Scrum Master may be who we think of first as the individual responsible, but if the Scrum Master is unable to right the ship by themselves then she’s not the only one who suffers…the whole team suffers.  So if everyone is at risk, then why shouldn’t everyone pitch in to correct the problem?

Great Scrum Master’s don’t define truly high functioning Scrum teams.  Teams in which every member is willing to contribute to the Scrum Master role define truly high functioning Scrum teams.  This is because truly great teams know that when times get hard, every team member becomes a Scrum Master.

Are you new to the Scrum Master role and are just trying to find your way? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who has your feet wet but now you’re ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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The Daily Scrum is a Planning Meeting…Not a Status Meeting

The Daily Scrum is a core ceremony of Scrum and one of the first that most teams adopt. But, despite its prominence, many teams struggle to grasp the point of this ceremony.

For example, let’s look at a typical Daily Scrum for a team building an ecommerce product. We’ll start with our Scrum Master, Jenny.

Jenny: “Ok guys, let’s circle up for the scrum. Joe, how about you go first?”

Joe: “Sure, yesterday I continued testing the shopping cart story and made it through the bulk of it. Today I should finish it and be ready to move on my next item. I have no blockers.”

Jenny: “Great. Sue?”

Sue: “Yesterday I made pretty good progress on the story to track inventory of items and automatically mark them as out of stock when we’ve sold the last one. There’s still a good bit to do for this one though so I don’t expect to finish it until tomorrow, at least. I have no blockers, either.”

Jenny: “Thanks, Sue. Pedro, that leaves you.”

Pedro: “Ok. Yesterday I wrapped up the data import of the next batch of new products and started work on importing our old customer contact list into the new app. This data is pretty messy, so it’ll probably take me the rest of the day to wrap that up.”

What’s Wrong?

At first glance, that may have seemed like a perfectly adequate Daily Scrum. The team circled up, talked about what they had been working on recently and what they would continue to do during the day. But, if you listened closely you may have noticed a common thread.

Each member of the team focused on a status update to their Scrum Master…not what they were actually doing to move their work forward.

Teams that are new to Scrum often fall into the trap of using the Daily Scrum as a simple status reporting meeting…especially if they’re transitioning from an environment where previously a large emphasis was placed on status reporting.

But, the Daily Scrum is much more than a status meeting. This ceremony is intended to be an opportunity for the team to synchronize and make a plan for the day about how they’ll work together to move closer to their sprint goal. In fact, just as the purpose of the Sprint Planning meeting is to give the team the chance to plan their work for the sprint to come, the purpose of the Daily Scrum is to give the team the chance to plan one slice of that sprint’s work for the day. But to do this, the team needs to shift away from simply reporting their status on their work each morning and instead shift their focus to what they’re doing to move their work forward that day. It’s only with this level of transparency can the team actually work together to plan their day’s work.

Let’s look at that same Daily Scrum again, but from this time from the perspective of treating it as a planning meeting…

Jenny: “Ok guys, let’s circle up for the morning standup. Who would like to start us off?”

Joe: “I’ll go. Yesterday I tested the ability to add items to the shopping cart and it looks good. I still have a bit left to do, though, so today I’ll be testing the ability to remove items from the shopping cart and update the quantities of existing items. It looks like the product review story is ready to go so I’m going to plan to start that after I finish the shopping cart story.”

Sue: “My turn. Yesterday I worked on tracking the inventory of items and added the functionality to automatically mark an item as out of stock when the last one is sold. There are a lot of tendrils with this one though so I’ll be working through those today. The biggest one is understanding what happens when an item has already been placed in one customer’s cart but then goes out of stock when another customer completes their purchase. I suppose I’m a bit blocked on this since I don’t know how to handle that case….in fact, I’m not even sure how to test for that.

Joe: “I can help you with that. I’ll be doing something similar with setting up test cases to track item quantities across individual carts so let’s sync up after the standup to see what we can come up with so we don’t duplicate our efforts.”

Jenny: “Let’s also grab Dave this morning and pose this question to him. As our Product Owner, he may have already considered the case when a customer adds a product to their cart but doesn’t check out immediately and what impact that can have on inventory.  Maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong and the idea is to deduct the item from inventory as soon as it’s in the cart. Let’s circle up with him this morning and get an answer before we go too deeply.”

Sue: “That sounds great, guys. Let’s do that.”

Pedro: “Ok, I suppose that leaves me. Yesterday I wrapped up the data import of the next batch of new products and started work on importing our old customer contact list into the new app. I was able to import the raw records pretty easily but this data is pretty messy, so I’ll be working today to figure out the best way to clean up the data and remove any duplicates. Joe, you mentioned that you were going to move on to the product review story today? Please let me know before you do…product reviews are always tied to customers and I’ll be truncating the customer’s table pretty frequently today as I try to get this import process sorted out. Please give me a heads up before you start so I can warn you each time I truncate it…otherwise you’re going to have a hard time getting anywhere with reviews when I’m constantly deleting your customers out from under you.”

What’s Different?

This is the same team, the same product, and the same day. They’re even describing the same pieces of work they’ll be tackling. So what’s different? Rather than just giving a simple status update for each item currently in progress, the team dove deeper into their actual plans for their work for the day which uncovered several opportunities for them to sync up and work more effectively together. In fact, in Pedro’s case this additional detail let him spot a potential problem where he and Joe would interfere with one another so they could plan accordingly.

By turning the Daily Scrum from a simple status meeting into an actual planning meeting for that day, the team was able coordinate much more effectively on the work in progress and significantly increase the odds that they can complete all of the work they planned for the current sprint.

How Do You Get There?

The shift from treating the Daily Scrum as a status meeting to treating it as a planning meeting is a powerful but subtle one, so it’s not always obvious how a team can do so. But, here are a few tips that can help.

  1. As the Scrum Master, discourage the team from reporting their status directly to you. The Daily Scrum is for the team’s benefit, not yours, so you’ll need to help your team understand this. If a team member seems to be looking at you while giving their update, try looking away to the Scrum board. This will communicate that you should not be the focus for the Daily Scrum and that the content should instead focus on the work represented on the board.
  2. Help the team learn to facilitate the Daily Scrum on their own without your prodding. At the very least, this means that the individual members of the team can keep the meeting moving without a need for you to call on each member. If your team struggles with this, then try to resist the urge to call on each member of the team simply to avoid an awkward silence between updates. If the silence is allowed to grow long enough between updates eventually someone will step in to fill the void. Once this has happened a few times the team will become much more adept at keeping the pace moving and avoiding these gaps.
  3. Although the Scrum Guide doesn’t explicitly specify what time of day the Daily Scrum should take place, teams that hold their Daily Scrums in the morning are much more likely to treat this ceremony as a planning opportunity than those teams who hold this ceremony in the afternoon. When a team meets for their Daily Scrum in the morning they have the entire day in front of them and are more likely to be in a planning mindset. But when a team meets in the afternoon the bulk of the day has passed so there’s little planning to be done. These teams are more likely to focus on the work already performed day and thus shift the meeting to a mere status report. Although this isn’t always possible, try to hold the Daily Scrum in the morning so your team is in a planning state of mind when they meet.
  4. Perhaps one of the simplest ways to coach your team away from treating the Daily Scrum as a simple status meeting is to discourage them from reporting on their recent work, altogether. The Reverse Standup, an alternative format for the Daily Scrum, was created to do just that. This format moves the “What did I do yesterday?” question to the end of question set and even makes it optional to downplay its significance. Try this format out with your team to help shift their focus from reporting on work that’s already happened to planning for work that’s next in the queue.

Building a Cohesive Team

The Daily Scrum is simultaneously one of the simplest and the most powerful aspects of the Scrum framework. But teams who insist on using it as a mere status meeting are barely scratching the surface of its potential. Encourage your team to make the shift to treating the Daily Scrum as a true daily planning meeting to help them work together more cohesively and deliver great products along the way.

Want to see more about how to make textbook agile work on real teams? Check out my course, Agile in the Real World, for tips and techniques for making agile really work in your organization.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Choosing the Right Sprint Length

One of the most common questions facing teams that are new to Scrum is “What’s the best sprint length for us?”.  Although this question can seem daunting at first, there’s actually a simple way to arrive at the right answer for your team.

The Scrum Guide places an upper limit of one calendar month on sprint length.  And although there is no “official” lower limit, 1 week is most commonly accepted as the shortest duration that a sprint can last and still be effective.  This gives us a window of 1 week to 1 month for valid sprint durations.

So, how do you find the length that’s best for your team?  The simple answer is that the best way is to experiment until you find the length that allows your team to deliver in the most predictable manner.

Beginning the Experiment

To begin, start your team running in 2 week sprints and continue this length for a few sprints.  If you find that your team either consistently misses their forecasted velocity or that they’re often unable to hit the sprint goals set out at the beginning of each sprint due to unexpected developments during your sprint, then your sprints may be too long.  In response, try shortening your sprints to 1 week in duration to see if they’re able to more consistently meet their forecasted velocity and deliver their sprint goals.

On the other hand, if you find that your team consistently meets their forecasted velocity and delivers their planned sprint goals but they struggle to make meaningful progress on the product in each sprint, then your sprints may be too short.  This is a common problem that can affect teams working in very complex domains where significant time is required to advance the product in meaningful increments.  If this sounds like your situation then experiment with lengthening your sprint to 1 month to see if that better enables your team to deliver a meaningful increment each sprint.

And, of course, if neither of these problems seem to be afflicting your team then you’ve likely discovered that a 2 week duration is just right for your team.

Tuning the Sprint

finish-lineA general rule of thumb when working with Scrum teams is that it usually takes 4 sprints for a team to fully assimilate any new practice or behavior.  If after 4 sprints a team is still struggling with a new practice, then it’s unlikely that the team will ever find success with that practice.  This is often more of an indication that the practice simply doesn’t fit with how the team works best rather than a reflection on the team, themselves.

We can apply the “4 Sprint Rule” in this context, as well.  If a team has found the sprint length that’s right for them then by the 4th sprint their velocity should have normalized to the point where it can be reasonably well forecasted and they should have established a history of successfully delivering their stated sprint goals.

Knowing When Good is Good Enough

Once a team reaches this state the time that they invest in process improvement will be better spent exploring ways to improve the work that happens inside of the sprint itself, rather than continuing to invest in tuning the sprint’s overall length.  Although there is a tendency with new Scrum teams to want to continuously evolve towards shorter and shorter sprints teams should be wary of falling into this trap.

Continuously changing sprint lengths can wreak havoc with a team’s velocity forecasts making longer term planning unnecessarily difficult.  The effects of these changing sprint lengths are often not as simple as a “a team who delivers 50 points in a 2 week sprint should deliver 25 points in a 1 week sprint, or 100 points in a 1 month sprint”, therefore changing the sprint duration often requires several more sprints of observation to see where the team’s new “normal” velocity lands.

It’s not out of a question for a team to begin a new project that has a high amount of unknown using 1 week sprints before eventually transitioning to 2 week sprints as the project becomes more stable.  However, such duration changes should not be taken lightly as they can have significant impacts on a team’s overall cadence.

Discovering the optimal sprint length for your team may take time but will significantly improve the team’s overall performance.  Make the investment in finding the sprint length that best suits your team and encourage the team to stick with that length once they’ve found it.

Want to see more about how to get the most out of agile with your team? Check out my course, Agile in the Real World, for tips and techniques for making agile work in your organization.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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What, When, How: The 3 Levels of Strategic Agile Planning

When we think of agile, we often think of quick reactionary planning to the realities of a project as it unfolds.

For that reason, most discussions of agile planning focus on the short term. Our teams plan and synchronize at the daily level using recurring morning stand-ups. And, for those teams practicing Scrum, we plan at the iteration level using recurring sprint planning meetings.

Both of these practices are great for keeping a team on the same page tactically, but what about strategically?

Luckily, there are some simple techniques for aligning your team strategically as well as for helping them to think beyond the sprint.

Strategic agile planning comes down to three simple questions:

  1. What are we doing?
  2. When do we need it done?
  3. How are we going to get there?

The key is to remember that the answers to these questions will likely change as the development of your product progresses. But, by taking an iterative approach, you can keep your team on track to ensure that you deliver the right product at the right time.

So let’s take a look at these three questions in turn to see how each propels you down the path of creating a great product.

What are we building?

The most important decision that you need to make as a team is what are you building? But the question is often more complicated than that. Instead, the deeper question is what need should your product be solving.

One of the best ways to answer this question is with a visioning canvas. There are many variations of the canvas available, including the well-known Lean Canvas, but my personal favorite is Roman Pichler’s Product Vision Board.

Product Vision Board

The example that you see here is how a vision board for a streaming music service, named Ostinato, may look. Notice that the vision board starts at a higher level than the specific needs of the product and instead focuses on the overarching need that the product is trying to fulfill.

Some of the characteristics that you’ll discuss when creating a vision board include defining the specific user needs or market opportunity that the product is trying to fill, identifying the core user base that you’re targeting with the product, identifying potential competitors who may already be in the market, and discussing how the product will generate revenue.

The outcome of the visioning exercise is intentionally vague, as it is not used for planning the execution of the product, but rather to build alignment across the team of what the ultimate result of building the product should be.

Some teams refer to this exercise as “setting their North Star,” since the result is a guiding direction on where the team is heading without dictating the specific steps of how to get there.

Although your product vision is unlikely to change daily, you should expect it to evolve as you learn more about your target users, potential competitors and where your product can most effectively fit in the market.

For that reason, plan to repeat this exercise periodically to reevaluate core assumptions that you may be making about the competitive landscape, as well as to take a fresh look to help spot opportunities for growth.

To do this, a good rule of thumb is to repeat this exercise annually, though newer and more rapidly evolving products may benefit from a slightly more frequent cadence.

To get the full benefit from this session, you should expect it to be attended by the product’s executive sponsors, the relevant product management team and key technical representation such as the product architect.

Although members of the product delivery team such as engineers, testers and designers may benefit as well, be wary of growing the session too large and remember that the resulting vision may be more effectively conveyed to these team members by the architect and product manager after it’s complete.

When does it need to be done?

Now that you know what you’re building, the next question that you need to solve is when does it need to be done?

But, remember that you’re running an agile project, so rather than waiting until the entire project is complete, you’ll want to deliver in small increments to get as much feedback as possible along the way.

This combination of answering both when you want to deliver your overall product as well as how and when you want to make small incremental deliveries along the way will become your product roadmap.

Product roadmaps are high-level plans that show your product’s intended evolution over the next few releases. They show, at a high level, the overall strategic direction that you plan to take your product, as well as the different guide points along the way that will help get you there.

If the idea of long-term planning fills you with fear as images of Gantt charts dance in your head, don’t worry…there are better alternatives that we’ll discuss here.

Agile product roadmapping has become a hot topic in the past few years with several very nice tools coming on to the market. However, my favorite is still the free Goal Oriented Roadmap, or GO Roadmap, which was created by the very same Roman Pichler that I mentioned previously.

What sets the GO Roadmap apart is that rather than focusing on the features required for each release, it instead focuses on the goal of each release. This approach not only frees you from thinking about implementation details and sequencing too early, but it also leaves the responsibility to define the specific features of each release until a time when you know more about them.

GO Product RoadmapIn the example here, we’ve created a GO Roadmap for our streaming music service, Ostinato.  Notice that any features defined here are very high level and intentionally lack specific detail.

Forcing your team to define features too early often creates an unrealistic impression of certainty for your product and can even lock you into a less than optimal feature set too early.

Instead, thinking at a higher level about the overarching goals that each release should meet will free you to think strategically not only about the impact of each release, but also how the entire release cycle for the product fits together as a whole.

While your roadmap won’t change frequently, expect to revisit it more often than your product vision. If you’re revisiting your product vision once a year, then revisiting your roadmap quarterly would be a good rule of thumb.

To be effective, this session should include key technical personnel who can advise you to any technical dependencies or limitations that may affect the goals you’re laying out.

During each roadmapping session, your team should be focusing primarily on the release that’s immediately upcoming. While you’ll still want to leave time to discuss subsequent releases, expect that they will be more vaguely defined and more volatile as they’re farther out on the horizon.

GO Product RoadmapAs a rule of thumb, you should be able to draw a diagonal line from the last objective of the nearest release to the last objective of the farthest release showing how each release becomes progressively less defined as you move toward the horizon.

How are we going to do it?

The final piece of strategic planning is to lay out a plan for how your team will approach the next release. This is done with a tool that’s similar to the GO Roadmap we discussed previously, but with a more fine-grained feel.

While this release plan contains much of the same information found in your roadmap, it also adds lower level information such as a prioritized list features that will be tackled in each release.

Release PlanThese features can be prioritized by whatever means is the most comfortable for your team … as long as they are prioritized. I’ll often use the MoSCoW prioritization technique, which has the advantage that it allows for items to be explicitly removed from a release.

Expect to revisit your release plan after each minor release, which should occur more frequently than the major releases detailed on your roadmap. For example, if you follow a release cadence of a major release at the end of each quarter with minor releases at the end of each subsequent month, then you should expect to revisit your roadmap quarterly and your release plan monthly.  The goal is to create a plan that represents what your team is currently working towards as well as to give you an idea of what lies in the future.

Ideally, your entire team should be involved in this meeting as they will be the ones who will deliver the work inside of each release.

And, as with the roadmapping discussion, you should be focused primarily on the next upcoming release and expect subsequent releases to be progressively less defined as you move out to the horizon.

In fact, the guiding principle of drawing a horizontal line from the last feature in the next release to the last feature in the farthest release works just as well for release plans as it does for roadmaps.

Seeing the big picture

Strategic agile planning is as much of an iterative exercise as anything else that we do in an agile context. The secret is to realize that no matter how confident you feel in your overall vision today, it’s very likely to change as your product grows and your market evolves around it.

By taking an agile approach to your strategic planning, you can significantly increase the odds that the product you deliver will make the impact that you envision.

This post was originally published on the Front Row Agile blog.

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Blocker

The 3 Levels of a Scrum Master Removing Impediments

Often when someone becomes a Scrum Master the only instruction they are given is to “remove impediments”, but what does that even mean?

Impediments can come in many forms and have many effects on a team.  Some can simply slow a team down by slowly eating away at their progress one bite at time while others can stop a team dead in their tracks.  How successful a Scrum Master is at identifying and removing these impediments tells a lot about how they are growing in their role.  To dive deeper into this, let’s look at some of the most common types of impediments a team can face and how a Scrum Master can detect and remove them.

Blockers

Blockers are the classic stop a team in their tracks problems that most people tend to think of when they picture impediments.  Maybe the hard drive cracked on a tester’s laptop taking him totally out of action for the next 2 days.  Or, maybe a developer’s daughter suddenly became sick and she needs to leave early to pick her up from school.

BlockerWhatever the reason, blockers are often easy to spot because someone on the team grinds to a halt as soon as they occur.  In fact, these are typically the types of issues most people think of when asked “What’s in your way?” at the morning standup.  As a Scrum Master, it’s your job to listen to these issues and do everything in your power to clear these blockers so the team can keep moving forward.

Many of these you can probably address yourself, directly.  Is there a spare laptop somewhere a tester can work from in the meantime, or can he pair with another tester to test his stories in parallel?

Others, however, you may be able to do very little about.  Can the team work around the work in progress of the developer who suddenly had to be out of the office due to a family illness?  Or, can she work remotely while her daughter recovers?  You may have to stretch yourself to remove these issues, or you may have to get creative to help the team work around them while these issue are in their way.

Classic Impediments

Classic Impediments are a bit trickier.  These are the things that slow your team down but don’t necessarily ground them to a halt.  Often the team is aware of these issues but have become so accustomed to working around them that they have simply written them off as “that’s how things will always be”.  In some cases, the team may have become so used to these issues that they don’t even notice them anymore or have forgotten that they even exist.  Examples of common impediments include a team who is not empowered to make changes to their production environment in order to deliver new features or a team that has to frequently stop to correct merge conflicts as a result of dealing with an antiquated source control system that they don’t have the freedom to replace.

ImpedimentIt can take an adept Scrum Master to detect these impediments since the team has often become so used to dealing with them they no longer even bother to mention them at the daily standup.  Your job as Scrum Master is to first bring these issues to the team’s attention and remind them that they exist and are slowing them down.  Once the team has accepted these issues, though, impediments often aren’t as easy to remove as blockers.

This is because impediments are often more of a global, systemic issue that affects the team as whole rather than a single individual.  In addition, impediments tend to be more subtle artifacts that arise as a result of factors in your organizational structure or culture.  These can make them very difficult to remove.

While your first task as a Scrum Master may initially be to remove these impediments so your team can operate at their full potential, ideally your long term goal should be to empower your team to start to remove these impediments for themselves.  I’ve mentioned previously that impediments tend to be symptoms of deeper issues in your organization’s culture.  If this is the case then the team working to identify and address these impediments themselves will have a longer lasting effect than the Scrum Master swooping in to correct these issues for them.  This is because the most effective way to address deep organizational issues is for the organization to acknowledge and address these issues for themselves.  Even if the Scrum Master is also a member of the organization, simply fixing issues for others on the team often becomes more of a band aide than a meaningful change in behavior.

Landmines

The final type of impediment a Scrum Master may find themselves removing are the landmines and pitfalls that lie in wait for their team to trip over.  These can be the trickiest type of all since, unlike a classic impediment which the team may have once been aware of but has since faded to the background, they likely have never even noticed the landmines before.  Often these are issues that a Scrum Master recognizes only because he’s seen them befall similar teams in the past or because it takes a second set of eyes to notice them.

LandmineSome landmines a Scrum Master may spot but aren’t entirely obvious to the team at large include an aggressive functional manager over participating in ceremonies such as retrospectives or daily standups thus limiting the transparency or honesty that the team is comfortable sharing.  Or maybe daily standups moved from the morning to the afternoon turning them from an opportunity for the team to plan and synchronize at the daily level to a mere afternoon status meeting.  Or even a Product Owner who is overcommitted to multiple teams thus limiting their ability to effectively clear a path for any of them.  Note that in all of these cases while the presence of such a landmine isn’t a guarantee of disaster it can at least be a warning of possible issues to come.  It’s up to the Scrum Master to evaluate each situation in the current environment and determine how likely it is that the landmine will detonate at the worst possible time for the team or simply become a harmless dud that fizzles out before the team even blindly wanders past it.

To make things even tougher, it’s not uncommon for a team to be initially resistive when a Scrum Master first attempts to point out landmines to the the team.  This means that a Scrum Master must have a sensitive touch when coaching their team to identify and to remove this particular type of impediment.

As with classic impediments, it’s often best to coach the team to remove these impediments for themselves.  But, how you coach may depend on how open your team is to such issues.  If you find that your team is particularly responsive to learning about and addressing landmines then simply guiding them to identifying them with a series of leading questions may be quite effective.  On the other hand, if your team resists the possibility of such landmines due to a strong cultural bias or organizational gravity then you may be better off standing aside while the team sails towards the brink to help illustrate the possible downfalls of not addressing the landmines that lie in their path.  Although this approach isn’t ideal, often it’s only necessary once or twice before a team becomes more receptive to feedback on where the landmines may lay.

A Natural Progression for Scrum Masters

In all cases, how a Scrum Master progresses through identifying each type of impediment, removing it, and ultimately coaching the team to clear it for themselves are important steps in the journey from Scrum Master to coach.

Although we often describe the Scrum Master role as the one who must remove impediments for their team, it’s important to remember that true success with agile only becomes possible once the team has become empowered to identify and remove such impediments for themselves.

Want to see more about becoming a great Scrum Master? Check out my course, Scrum Master Fundamentals: Foundations, for tips and techniques to help your team perform at the highest level.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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