Brian Tracy is an author and public speaker who specializes in helping people improve their effectiveness through, among other things, better time management. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak at an event many years ago. In his presentation, he said something that made quite an impression on me. Though I didn’t know it at the time–this was long before I became a Certified Scrum Trainer, or had even heard of agile software development–he was emphasizing some of the very things I would come to value most about the Scrum framework.
Brian said that most people would achieve far more in their careers if they would think of themselves as a “factory” and always be able to answer this question: “What is my factory supposed to produce?” In other words, “What is the end goal of my work efforts?” He went on to point out that the error most people make is that they focus on what they need to do, meaning the tasks they must complete. In taking this approach, they often lose sight of the end goal–the final result all those tasks are trying to create. In short, they cannot see the forest for the trees.
It can be helpful to think of this with an example from everyday life. Let’s say you are having friends over to watch football on Sunday at 1PM. So you wake up bright and early on Sunday morning. What do you do? If you are smart, you’ll think about what your Sunday “factory” needs to produce, which might be “an enjoyable Sunday afternoon for me and my friends to spend together watching our team pound the competition.” So what are the tasks that go into that? Maybe you need to clean your house, buy groceries, cook food (or, order take-out!), make arrangements for more seating – any number of activities that ensure a great time for you and your pals.
But what happens when you get focused instead on the tasks? Maybe you get stuck on the cleaning task and decide your living room needs a really detailed cleaning to be presentable. Suddenly it is 12:45PM and not only is the cleaning not done but there are no groceries, no food prepared, no extra seating. Yet your timebox is fixed – your friends are arriving and the game is starting at 1PM, with or without you. In short, your factory is in danger of not producing the pleasurable Sunday afternoon you hoped for.
Attendees in my Certified ScrumMaster courses often groan when they hear about the Scrum meetings, meaning the Planning, Review, Retrospective and Daily Scrum meetings. “There are so many meetings! We don’t have time for this stuff. We have real work to do!” they often complain. They particularly chafe at the Sprint Planning Meeting which, for a 4-week sprint, can be a full 8 hours long. Yet when I go into organizations to provide Scrum coaching, I often see Planning meetings that go on for days. One company I visited used a full week to do their Planning “meeting”.
When I observe these problems, I know a couple of things are happening:
- These teams do not understand the meaning of timeboxing and
- They have lost sight of what their factory must produce
A crucial part of Scrum, timeboxing is giving a limited, pre-defined amount of time to a series of tasks with the idea of producing a given set of deliverables. With timeboxing you are essentially saying “This is all the time we have to create End State X, so what are the activities we can do that will give us the best end result possible?”
Every Scrum meeting is a factory that must produce a clearly defined result. Let’s look, for example, at the Sprint Planning meeting. The planning meeting is a factory that must product this result: a sprint commitment. To create that commitment, teams will engage in a number of tasks: they will clarify requirements with the Product Owner, break down epics, estimate user stories, create tasks, do some design and perhaps other work as well. But the end goal remains: a sprint commitment. The quality of that commitment will depend largely not on the length of time allowed (an all-too-common complaint “We didn’t have enough time!”) but on how well the time available was used.
Like our Sunday football fan, new Scrum teams tend to focus on tasks–often the first few– and lose sight of what they need to accomplish in their timebox. Instead they may benefit from doing “passes” through the backlog, moving fairly quickly through items but knowing they may come back to individual items more for discussion in a few minutes. This kind of activity can get team members more comfortable with defining detail in “layers” rather than all up front. When I visit organizations that struggle with this, I find teams that are essentially trying to create little mini “specifications” for each backlog item, as they did in their pre-Scrum days. No wonder they get to the end of the Sprint Planning timebox and have not produced a sprint commitment!
ScrumMasters can help novice Scrum teams by watching for signs they are getting “into the weeds.” Questions like “We’ve spent an hour on the first backlog item. I wonder if we should move on?” can help a team deep in discussion remember they have a limited amount of time. And statements like “We’re about 1/2 way through our scheduled time – are we where we want to be?” can also help team members think in terms of making best use of the time available.
My final–and toughest–advice? Never extend a Planning meeting. If your team has a 4-hour planning meeting and they get to 3 hours and 55 minutes having only discussed the first backlog item, that simply means they have a whopping 5 minutes to make a sprint commitment. No doubt that will be an uncomfortable experience. But it will produce a result, for better or worse, that you can discuss in the Retrospective, making a plan for improvement next sprint.
The world of business rarely offers unlimited time. Often markets are captured not because a product was better but simply because it arrived first. Scrum teams that timebox well, focusing on making effective use of the time available rather than always asking for more time understand what their factory must produce. And, in doing so, they are a powerful weapon in a company’s ability to stay one step ahead of the competition.