Category Archives: Sprint Planning

The Heartbeat of an Agile Team

What is the one focal point that catches every team member’s attention at the same time every day?  Of course it is their Scrum board. Some teams go through the motions and use their Scrum board because they are told to; for effective teams the board is a way to collaborate, manage work in process, keep track of impediments and know whether or not they are going to meet the sprint goal. Effective teams turn their board into a highly-visible collection of critical information about their effort. It becomes the heartbeat of the team and helps set the cadence for each sprint.

Their board might look something like this:

Board

 

Sprint Dates and Goal – as a reminder of the goal and the timeline. Seeing the sprint dates can be helpful if users who will be testing attend the standups so that they understand the sprint timing.

Columns for each step in their development process – This can be as simple or as complex as the team wants – it usually evolves as the team learns and tweaks its process to ensure a smooth flow of stories. In the example above, the team experienced issues with too many stories waiting for user testing. They created a column to show which stories are ready for user testing to make it clear to users when something is ready for them to test. During standups, the Scrum Master points out any columns where an excessive number of stories are piling up. Even with Scrum, the team may set limits for how many stories may accumulate in each column before team members swarm to address a bottleneck.

Sprint Calendar – during sprint planning the team members estimate on which days of the sprint they think stories will be Done and also when they will likely reach any other significant milestones in the team’s process such as being ready for user testing. This is a way of performing a sanity check for the sprint plan.  It is also a way for the team to gauge whether or not it is on track during the sprint. When user testing is part of the Definition of Done, it allows the users to plan when they will be performing this testing. Putting team members’ planned vacation days on this calendar avoids surprises in the middle of the sprint. It can also help to put key SME’s or users’ vacation days on the calendar if these could impact the sprint.

Impediments – unresolved impediments. Making these visible is a way to track them and may have the side benefit of prompting outside stakeholders who attend the standup or visit with the team to help the Scrum Master by finding other ways to resolve them.

Additional Stories – these are stories at the top of the Product Backlog that are ready to be brought into a sprint but that are not part of the current Sprint Backlog. These are posted on the board so that they are readily available in case the team reaches the sprint goal early and can complete some additional stories in this sprint. Note that these are not called “Stretch Goals”. That term can be perceived negatively by the team, almost as if they are not pushing hard enough in the first place to meet the sprint goal.

Release Burnup – the bigger picture of what the team is working towards. This help avoid the sense of being in an endless churn of sprints with no end in sight.

For teams using Kanban, many elements on this board still apply but may need slight modification. Note the use of colors throughout the board.  It is amazing how teams will adopt color schemes or symbols that communicate the state of their work, highlight important events, serve as key reminders, etc. One type of information not included on the example above is an area for Technical Debt.  Creating an open area on the board for this invites the team members to note it as soon as it becomes apparent to them.  These notes can then be translated into backlog items during grooming. This encourages open discussion about technical debt and surfaces this information rather than just having it in the team members’ heads.

A note for teams that use online/electronic Scrum or Kanban boards: additional information such as the PTO calendar, Impediments and release burnup can be captured in story cards and placed in a column dedicated to that background information. The sprint calendar can be captured by putting Due Dates on each electronic story card. On a physical or electronic board, the story cards can contain as much information as the team finds helpful. Typically the story number, title, and number of story points are included.

Reflections:

  • The Scrum or Kanban board can be used to communicate much more than just the status of the stories and tasks.
  • The information on this board should reflect each team’s personality and process. It will evolve as the team learns.
  • The Scrum Master can help the team during the standup by directing their attention to potential trouble spots on the board.

Normalizing Story Points Across Teams

normalized story points

On a large-scale agile project/program with multiple Scrum teams working toward the same overall goal, having user stories sized in a way that makes it easier to re-assign them from one Scrum team to another provides provides a planning and execution advantage when balancing work across teams to optimize delivery dates.

 

Before adopting a common story points scale, there are a couple of keys to consider in designing the team structures:

  • Skill sets should be balanced across teams rather than having teams that are specialized (i.e. don’t have a user interface team, a database team, a services team, etc.). This allows each team to develop entire features rather than individual layers of the application. And just as importantly, it provides flexibility to move user stories from one team’s backlog to another’s, helping to avoid any one team from becoming the critical path.
  • Once the teams are formed, the teams are kept together rather than constantly re-assigning people to different teams. The philosophy of “taking the work to the team” helps high-performing teams to continue to produce rather than paying the price associated with forming/storming/norming/etc. every time new team members are added to a team. This can be a very difficult concept for organizations that are accustomed to traditional resource leveling across a department or organization, but it critical to keeping teams operating at peak productivity.

With the team structure in place, features to be developed can then be introduced into each team’s backlog. On a project that is not constrained by a minimum feature set and go-live date (the kind that we read about in text books), the product increment is released when each team completes the features in their backlog and necessary integration/regression testing is complete. When a feature set is needed by a certain date, the project manager will seek to understand if one of the teams is on the critical path and not able to meet the forecasted code complete date. If this is the case, they may need to move some of the features or stories to another team’s backlog. In order to do this, the features and stories need to be sized in a currency that is common across all teams – story points.

On a small, single-team project, each team would be free to define what a story point means to them. On a large-scale project/program, it is important that the story points scale is the same for each team in order to facilitate balancing work across teams. This can be accomplished by identifying stories in the backlog that are representative of each story point size and making those stories known to all of the teams. Team leads then attend other teams’ backlog grooming sessions (especially in the early going) to ensure teams to not deviate from the standard.

Reflections:

  • Features and stories belong to the overall project/program, not to an individual team.
  • Sizing stories using a common story points scale makes it easier to balance work across teams.
  • Sizing stories using a common story points scale allows for consistency in project reporting such as team-level burndowns or overall project/program

Sprint Length – Does Size Matter?

RulerWhen a team that is accustomed to working on 6, 12, or 18-month long projects adopts agile practices, the prospect of planning its work every week or two is daunting. Planning the work every month might be tolerable so the team goes with four week long sprint lengths. As the team becomes more and more agile, the four week long sprints start to feel drawn out and constraining. This prompts the question, does sprint length really matter?

Smells that indicate a need for shorter sprint lengths

  1. Multiple teams on same program needing to re-sync/adjust frequently because of dependencies:

In a large program consisting of several feature teams, the work produced by one feature team often becomes an input into work done by another feature team.  For example, consider Team A and Team B. Their sprints are synchronized to begin and end at the same time to help with release planning and tracking. In any given sprint, Team A may produce something in the first part of their sprint that is needed by Team B in order to produce something else in the latter part of their month-long sprint. In theory this works, but in reality as soon as something delays Team A from delivering, Team B’s sprint commitment is jeopardized. After this happens once or twice, members of Team B will no longer be willing to commit to work with cross-team dependencies. One or two-week sprints eliminate many of those disconnects.  Team B simply does not pull an item into one of their sprints until Team A is done building the pre-requisite feature set. Because the sprint length is short, there is minimal delay between Team A finishing their feature and Team B starting their work.

Note: this does not presume that component teams (that only develop one layer of the app then hand it off to another team to develop another layer) are to blame here.  These interdependencies also occur with feature teams.

  1. Team sagging in middle of the sprint and then having a burst of energy towards end of sprint.

Teams using four week sprint lengths, in spite of the professionalism and motivation of team members, can be susceptible to waiting until a deadline looms to become focused on what is needed to close out stories. The effort and energy level may not really crank up until the latter part of the sprint. Have you ever worked with a Scrum team whose energy level looks something like the graph below over the course of a sprint?

Energy Level

This is a sign that the longer sprint length is causing the team to lose focus and/or momentum until the point when they need to “put the pedal to the metal” in order to meet the sprint objectives before the close of the sprint.

  1. Team taking on a small number of large stories.

New Scrum teams often have difficulty slicing features into multiple, smaller stories. Sometimes this is because the users are afraid that if they don’t cram all of their requirements into this one story right now then they will never have another opportunity to build the rest of the functionality. Without going into a dissertation about queuing theory (check out Little’s Law if you want more info about this), large stories have a profound (negative) impact on team throughput. One of the most tangible effects of large stories is that there may be little or nothing for the users to test until near the end of the sprint, which then results in a mad scramble to finish the stories. Not exactly a model for a sustainable pace and high quality.  Shorter sprints force teams to break large stories down into smaller pieces. Once they get the hang of it, they will size the stories so that they can deliver a steady stream of functionality to QA, the Product Owner, and users for testing throughout a sprint.

  1. Team is finding that the large number of small stories is getting hard to manage and wants to combine them into just a few large stories in each four week sprint.

For teams that become adept at breaking stories down into smaller stories, a new challenge can be that there are so many stories in a four week sprint that it becomes almost unmanageable. This is a clear signal that it is time to move to shorter sprints involving a lower number of but still small stories.

  1. Team is tinkering with what stories are in the sprint backlog due to learnings that occur early in the sprint.

What if, early in the sprint, the team learns something while working on a story that results in a new story being created that encompasses those learnings? While it is commendable that the scope of the current story was not just expanded, what is not so commendable is that often teams, especially ones working on four week sprints, become tempted to swap out another story lower in the sprint backlog for this new story because otherwise the team will not be able to address the new story for another month. Of course a constantly shifting sprint commitment is hazardous to a team’s health. A team working on two week long sprints would not need to be concerned about long delays before it can address the new story.

Nowhere to hide

Just as the initial agile adoption effort brought many organizational dysfunctions to light, shorter sprint lengths will unearth still more issues. Sporadic involvement of the product owner or users cannot be concealed in a two-week sprint. Excessive work in process, with a team that is hesitant to swarm on a small number of stories at one time, creates bottlenecks for testers, product owners and users who must focus on large number of conversations at once rather than focusing on a few at a time. Shorter sprint lengths will expose these and other shortcomings and allow a team to quickly learn and adjust its practices. Also, if the Scrum Master is wise enough know when he/she needs to let the team members fail in a sprint in order for them to learn a tough lesson on their own, the impact is muted due to the shorter sprint length.

Roadblocks

If the case for one or two week sprints is so obvious, why is it hard for some teams to adopt them? A common roadblock is stakeholder concern that more sprints will result in more “unproductive” time planning sprints, doing retrospectives, and conducting sprint reviews. The reality is that sprint planning time should correlate very closely to the number of stories in the sprint, therefore a shorter sprint = less time needed for planning. Retrospective and sprint review meetings can also be shortened accordingly.

Reflections

  • One or two week long sprints allow teams to better synchronize their efforts.
  • Small stories are that much more important with shorter sprint lengths.
  • Shorter sprints require more consistent involvement from everyone on the team, including testers and product owners.

Introducing Scrum to a Team

GoFor a Scrum Master introducing agile to a team, there is a balance between implementing concepts and practices at a pace that does not overwhelm the team and demonstrating the benefits as early as possible to build momentum and support within the organization.

Each situation is different, but let’s assume that an organization wants to use Scrum and there is an experienced Scrum Master who has been asked to lead a team of people that are experienced with waterfall approaches and are new to agile. Also assume a reasonable level of management support. How should the Scrum Master go about implementing agile practices on the team? For an experienced agile practitioner, the practices are second nature so it can be tempting to try to introduce it all at once, but the reality is that it must be gradually introduced in bite-sized chunks. The key question is which practices should be introduced first and which practices must be implemented in the longer term? Here are some suggestions:

Groundwork

Before starting the first sprint, there are some things that need to be put in place:

  1. Secure a Product Owner (PO). In many organizations this might be a product manager or representative from a business unit. This requires a serious time commitment and product insight so it should not be an afterthought.
  2. Secure a team where the people will be dedicated just to this team, rather than juggling several different projects at once. This can be a big shift for organizations accustomed to managing project assignments via resource utilization/optimization models tied to specific skillsets.
  3. Educate the team (including the Product Owner) about agile principles and Scrum. Hiring a Scrum trainer to conduct a two or three day course is ideal, but if lead time or budgets do not allow this, prepare an overview that touches on the agile principles as well as the mechanisms and ceremonies of scrum. The Scrum Reference Card and Build Your Own Scrum  are good tools to facilitate this.
  4. Be careful in comparing agile to waterfall. Disparaging waterfall will not endear agile to people who have delivered successfully using waterfall.
  5. The new PO will require additional training about what the role involves.  If they were a product manager accustomed to working with a project manager (PM), they will need to understand the additional responsibilities that get transferred from the PM to the PO. To get them started, help them understand that they will need to work with the team on a daily basis.
  6. Change the team’s physical workspace to foster improved collaboration.  Sometimes it is as simple as taking down a few cubicle walls. Other times, it involves locating people in the same area if they are spread out around the building. Be thoughtful about this. Done wrong, too many people are jammed into a small area and they can’t move around without bumping into each other. This builds frustration and resentment that leads people to resist and question the approach that brought this change. Also, an area with plenty of wall space is best.
  7. Pick an iteration length. Start short so that the team can get used to the different ceremonies and rapidly learn from its experiences. This also quickly gives the team and the organization a feel for what happens before/during/after an iteration.
  8. Populate the initial product backlog:
    • Conduct a story writing workshop. Utilize a technique such as story mapping to organize the stories. Don’t get hung up on teaching story mapping techniques – just do it by organizing stories that way on the wall. It will actually be very intuitive to people who are accustomed to structured analysis techniques. A big challenge here will be in writing the stories. If a work breakdown structure (WBS) exists as a result of the initial business case or previous project planning that was done before deciding to use agile, it may be possible to use it as a starting point for populating the product backlog.  This depends on the extent to which the WBS aligns with product features vs. technical tasks.  The more aligned it is with features, the easier it is to translate. This is an opportunity to reinforce that product backlog items are features and not tasks. Also, team members may correlate this to the design phase of a waterfall project. The focus needs to be on “what” the requirements are and not “how” they will be implemented. Stories need to be written in just enough detail for sizing, not with detailed requirements.
    •  Get the PO to prioritize the backlog by business value. Don’t be surprised if every item is given a priority of ‘1’ the first time around.
    • Create a Definition of Done. This provides the basis for sizing stories. This should include user acceptance testing (avoid the use of “done” and “done done” at all costs!). This will be challenging for a team accustomed to a UAT phase after long design and development phases. Doing this reinforces that the team should write stories that represent testable feature increments rather than individual technical layers of the application.
    • Conduct a planning poker session where the team sizes an initial set of backlog items using story points. This can be a big change for teams accustomed to having senior team members provide the estimates. During this process, the Scrum Master needs to make sure all voices on the team are heard.  Planning poker is ideal way to do this. The Scrum Master solicits input from all team members, especially when there are significant differences in estimates. So that the team does not feel as though it needs to define every last detail of each story, help team understand that this is not the last time these stories will be discussed; detailed requirements will be covered in depth once the sprint starts.
    • This next step depends on the project and organization.  If the organization views the project as an agile incubator, the team might have the leeway not to commit to an overall release plan for the product until a few sprints have been completed and the velocity is understood. If not, you may need to use an old project planning approach to derive a delivery date to satisfy the organization until a release plan can be formulated. Be very careful about providing enough buffer for unknowns – any dates that are published may become the benchmark against which success or failure of the effort will be measured. If possible, characterize any release dates as preliminary until the team has had a chance to run a few sprints.

The First Sprint

  1. Plan the sprint.
    • Set firm start and end dates for sprint. Go with either a 1 or 2 week sprint. A 3 or 4 week sprint length is not recommended because it is harder to convince PO not to change the contents of a sprint if it is longer. Also, longer sprints involve larger numbers of stories for a larger team, which can be difficult for them to manage. A shorter sprint length allows the team to demonstrate results quickly.
    • Calculate the team’s hours of capacity to do work on user stories during the sprint, factoring in sprint length, time for meetings, vacation time, etc.
    • Conduct the sprint planning meeting. The first part should involve the development team and the PO. Review the user stories on the backlog starting with the highest priority items. The team should ask the PO any questions they need to help them understand how to task out each story. The PO can stay for second part if they want. Create tasks for each story. Make tasks granular enough (max 6-8 hours) so that it will be easy to have multiple people working on each story. Continue to add stories until team’s hours of capacity for the sprint are used up.
    • Ask everyone on the team if they are comfortable committing to delivering these stories in the timeframe of the sprint and if they have any concerns or reservations.  Go around the table and ask each person – it can reveal some insights that people might not otherwise volunteer.
  1. Set up a story/task board in the team area. Even though the team might have software for sprint planning, go with high-visibility, tactile information radiators. This is important because it helps the team learn that it needs to be self-organizing/self-assigning. The team should update the board throughout the sprint, not the Scrum Master. The Scrum Master needs to change culture of having the project plan buried in project planning software like MS Project and only being maintained by the PM. This also starts to build culture of transparency with stakeholders. Invite stakeholders to visit the team’s work area to view status of current iteration. Of course, be careful that they don’t interfere by trying to change priorities or introduce new stories.
  2. Start the first sprint.
  3. Do daily standups. Start by helping team understand the purpose and the basics.
  4. Some people on the team may have heard the agile myth about “no documentation”. This is the time to start establishing culture of lean, maintainable documentation that has value through the lifetime of the product. A new team will only be able to bite off so much new stuff at one time. If they are accustomed to some type of UX or use case document, use that artifact (during the first sprint) as a transition into user acceptance test cases.
  5. Coach team members that the first thing that they need to do when they pick up a new user story to work on is to get with the PO and applicable users to discuss detailed requirements (since the team didn’t hammer out every last detail of the story during grooming or planning, right?). Reinforce with the PO that they need to be prepared to work with team members on a daily basis.
  6. While the Scrum Master’s eventual goal is a team that limits WIP and individuals self-assign tasks, don’t necessarily expect that to happen in the first sprint. Remember – people on the team are probably accustomed to having their tasks assigned to them by the PM or tech lead via project plans.  Initially, the Scrum Master may need to ask for volunteers for tasks, or as team members report that they are wrapping up a task, the Scrum Master may need to ask them which task they will work on next. Team member will typically look at the next available story that no one is working on. Steer them instead to first look for tasks they can work on for stories that are already underway but not yet complete.
  7. Start tracking the team’s burn down and post in the team work area.
  8. Run interference if the PO or other business stakeholders try to change the stories in the sprint. This is another reason to keep sprints short (max 2 weeks) at first. It is easier to argue against changing the contents of a sprint when the next sprint is less than 2 week away.
  9. Conclude the sprint on the planned end date.  DO NOT extend the sprint under any circumstances, even if it will take ‘just one more day’ to finish all of the stories. It is important to establish this early as it speaks to the sprint commitment being firm and the importance of sizing/organizing the work so that it can be completed within the iteration.
  10. Do the retrospective.  Keep the format simple initially. “What went well, what did not go well, ideas for improvement” is an easy format. Do not allow anyone from outside the team to attend. Make sure the PO attends because they are part of the team and this meeting is an important way to build trust between the PO and the developers. Ensure attendees know that the Vegas rule applies. At the conclusion of the retrospective ask attendees if it is okay to share ideas that were generated with outsiders – stakeholders will naturally be curious.  Ideas that the team does not want to share are not shared outside the team.
  11. In preparation for the sprint review, prepare a sprint summary document.  Show the team’s burn down, stories committed and status of each story at end of sprint.
  12. Conduct the sprint review. Encourage as many people from around the organization to attend as possible. This is about
    • Demonstrating results
    • Team members taking pride in their work by showing it off
    • Showing the organization that the team is transparent

The development team members (developers, QA people, etc.) should conduct the demos.

The mechanics of the first sprint described above are relatively straightforward, but the reality is that this is all occurring against the backdrop of organizational change:

  • Team members are experiencing dramatic change.  Their physical work area has changed. They are being asked to commit to delivering something without detailed specifications. No one is telling them which tasks to work on.
  • The relationship between business and IT may be very different when using an agile approach. If the PO comes from a business unit and because of the organization’s culture there exists a lack of trust or poor communication between the business unit and IT, the lack of trust and communication issues will not necessarily disappear overnight.
  • The organization’s culture may not value or emphasize teamwork. Part of management and the Scrum Master’s jobs is to build a culture where teamwork is highly valued.

The Second Sprint

In the second sprint, the Scrum Master continues to emphasize agile principles and the mechanisms of Scrum.

  1. The Scrum Master continues to coach regarding self-assignment of tasks. As the Scrum Master backs away a little bit and the team starts to self-organize, others (such as the PO) may feel that the team needs to be directed and step in to direct the team and tell them what to do.  The Scrum Master must also coach them not to direct the team.
  2. The Scrum Master continues to encourage team members to swarm on stories by default rather than only when necessary. Lessons learned from first sprint (e.g. too many stories in progress at the same time) make the purpose of this apparent.  Swarming will not happen overnight, but the Scrum Master needs to keep encouraging it.
  3. Conduct user story grooming meetings during the sprint. In the meetings, continue the mantra of discussing features at “the right level of detail at the right point in time.” Use these meetings to size out the rest of the backlog and to revisit stories likely to be worked on in the next sprint. The product owner may be unprepared for these meetings because they are already overwhelmed by working with the team on the current sprint’s user stories. Sometimes it helps for the Scrum Master to meet separately with the product owner a day or two before a grooming meeting to survey the backlog and discuss the next set of stories to be groomed.
  4. Encourage the PO to regularly tend to the backlog – not just before grooming or planning meetings.
  5. Using the team’s velocity from the first sprint, begin working with the product owner to formulate the release plan. It may not be appropriate to go public with it yet. Velocity cannot necessarily be trusted after just one sprint, but doing a preliminary release plan is valuable to get the PO thinking in terms of using the velocity and backlog to formulate a plan.
  6. Start tracking the team’s burn up and also post in the team work area.  The burn up emphasizes that hours worked do not provide business value, only completed user stories do. A graph that shows a steady burn up of completed story points during the sprint (rather than a ”hockey stick” where most of the stories get closed at/near the end of the sprint) is the goal. Don’t necessarily beat the team over the head with this…at this point just introduce it to them and call attention to each story as it is closed during the sprint.

Beyond

Over subsequent sprints, the Scrum Master should consider introducing some of the following techniques.  Of course each situation is unique so he/she will have to gauge whether or not the team is ready for each new practice.

  • For teams that are having trouble swarming and have too many stories in progress at the same time, reinforce the concept of WIP limits.  For teams that already have a task/scrum board with steps in the process laid out, the WIP limits can easily be established for each step. The team can decide whether they are firm limits not to be exceeded or soft limits that are triggers for conversations.
  • Help the team learn the finer points of writing user stories. A book study (e.g. “User Stories Applied” by Mike Cohn) is a good way to do this. Be sure to include the PO in this.
  • Test-Driven Development (TDD).  The benefits of this can be difficult for a team to grasp. Once the team (including the Product Owner) understands that it is okay to refactor and that it is simply part of progressive elaboration, the benefits of TDD become much more apparent.
  • Acceptance Test Driven Development, manual or automated.
  • Introduce additional retrospective techniques to help the team learn about itself and identify areas for growth. The Scrum Master will need to judge what type of retrospective is appropriate depending on how the sprint went.

In addition to learning new practices, the team overall needs to learn to be agile, not just to use agile practices.

  • Work with team members’ managers to help them develop a broader, t-shaped skillset that allows them to perform a larger variety of technical and non-technical tasks.  For specialists, this can be a big shift.
  • Help the team to develop an agile mindset by only learning enough about a feature to size and plan it and then really dig into the details of it once it has been pulled into a sprint. One of the most gratifying moments for a Scrum Master can be when the PO says, “We did not think of that aspect of the feature in when we discussed the story. We will just create a new story and handle it in the next sprint” – without taking the team to task for not delivering it in the current sprint.
  • When the Scrum Master has been steering the team towards new practices but the team has resisted using them, the Scrum Master may need to let the team fail for a sprint. The Scrum Master needs to help stakeholders understand that this is part of the learning process, and two-week sprints will minimize most of the damage if the team gets off-track.

Reflections

  • Every situation is different so of course there is no “one size fits all” approach to starting with agile. Organization and team dynamics impact the speed and extent to which agile is adopted.
  • As the team becomes more comfortable with the agile approach, the Scrum Master should adapt his/her approach to be in more of a supporting role for the team.
  • Occasionally the team will forget lessons learned from a few sprints ago and revert to old habits.  The Scrum Master can bring previous retrospective conversations back into focus to help the team avoid making the same mistakes.