When is a Sprint a success?

Let me cut to the chase and offer the following as a definition of a successful Sprint:

A successful Sprint is one where an increment of significant customer/user value has been sustainably delivered in broad alignment with what the team had forecast that they would deliver. As a consequence of their work they now have a better understanding of their problem-domain, and of their next steps. Additionally, the team have agreed what they will do differently (improve) to try and increase the likelihood of success in their subsequent Sprint(s).

Success criteria for a Sprint is something that I have discussed more times that I can keep track of. From interns and graduates fresh out of university to seasoned C-level managers, everybody seems to have their own idea of what 'success' looks like in Scrum.

Probably the most commonly cited definition is that 'every card brought into the Sprint in Sprint Planning is done'. I think that this viewpoint revolves around the common misunderstanding that the Sprint Backlog is a task list, and therefore the definition of success is coupled to that list being completed.

That's a kinda scary definition, because it inverts the first principle of agile software development by suggesting that following a plan is the most important thing.

Another common angle is that 'success' means that the Sprint Goal is done. I greatly prefer this over the previous definition; a well crafted Sprint Goal ensures that there is flexibility in scope, but also provides a 'guarantee' that value in being delivered to the user/customer. If a team is achieving this every Sprint, that is a typically a pretty good sign for the health of the team, and the project. But it is definitely not the only sign of success.

For example, imagine a team that takes on a hugely complicated/complex Sprint Goal, and delivers all bar one very small part of it. Perhaps it is a global product and they managed to release an industry-changing new feature in all bar the smallest of their supported markets. This is probably still a triumphant victory for not just the team but their wider business. If they had taken on a smaller goal which they did get completely 'done' but made no material difference to the business or industry, would that have been more successful? I think that we'd all agree not.

The purpose of a Sprint is to give teams a chance to creatively solve complex problems. It's an empirical process which means it all revolves around inspection and adaption.

This starts to highlight the problem with having black and white 'success' criteria. In a complex domain, we cannot [reliably] predict the relationship between cause and effect. In other words, we can't know before we start exactly how things will unfold. It's like trying to define success for each and every child, before they are even born.

Our definition of success really needs to acknowledge the uncertainty that has brought us towards an empirical agile process, rather than a tightly defined (more waterfall) one. This takes us to where we started this post, with a definition of success which can be applied uniformly and crucially explained to key stakeholders like management.

Your Sprint Goal still matters, but I think it is for the team to define and understand exactly what it means to them. The Scrum Guide says it "…is an objective set for the Sprint that… provides guidance to the Development Team on why it is building the Increment", and I think that is a pretty good starting point.

If you've got a different (or more concise) definition of success, please comment below.

Can you Sprint when there are a lot of unknowns?

Over the past few months I have spoken with people from a number of teams who have found themselves facing a large amount of uncertainty in their mission, their precise roadmap has been unclear, and the technical details of how to achieve it foggier still.

This is a common scenario for teams, particularly in start-ups where there is a significant rate of development (or growth) and a large amount of risk and uncertainty in the roadmap ahead.

Often, I hear these teams say that they should use Kanban because planning is difficult with such uncertainty. I can understand the logic and thinking that leads people to this conclusion, but I'd like to challenge it:

One of the rules of Scrum is that in each Sprint the team produces a potentially releasable increment [of product]. To achieve the Sprint Goal teams typically implement Product Backlog Items, but there is no requirement that PBIs be the only work that a team can complete, nor even that they are completed at all in achieving a Sprint Goal. It would be unusual, but conceptually a Sprint Goal could be achieved without a single PBI being done.

If we contrast this to a Kanban or continuous flow approach where the focus shifts towards progressing individual cards rather than the greater goal, we can start to see that Scrum is in fact ideally suited for environments where there are a lot of unknowns, and a lot of uncertainty.

If Kanban teams try and optimise their flow as you would expect a team practicing continuous flow to do (since WIP, cycle times and lead times would be key metrics), they will soon struggle as a consequence of the uncertainty and unknowns; it is difficult to achieve 'flow' when it's not clear what work needs to be done, or indeed how work can be done.

This leads to an interesting conclusion that would be echoed by many leading Scrum Masters worldwide; Scrum is ideally suited and intended for environments that are complex, and therefore have many unknowns. This is in stark contrast to the common view that scope is fixed within a Sprint.

It is this latter view that I believe leads many to defer to Kanban and continuous flow when there are many unknowns. The irony is that this leads teams to consistently choose a way of working that isn't suited to the problem space that they are in.

There is, however, a further level of uncertainty where not even a Sprint Goal can allow for the flexibility in scope required. This is particularly rife where there is no concept of a product, yet and so there's a lot of experimentation and trial-and-error in trying to build something that gains traction in a market.

Scaling Scrum in a very simple way

There are a lot of scaled agile frameworks out there. Some are big and complicated, whilst others are small and simple. Each one has pros and cons depending on a wide variety of factors, not least the maturity of the company and the knowledge/experience/skill of the people implementing it.

One framework in particular stands out to me as being universally applicable and useful across a wide variety of teams — Nexus. Anybody who is interested in scaling an agile process would benefit from reading The Nexus Guide, even if it’s just for some ideas and inspiration.

Nexus is the foundation of the diagram below, and at its heart is a balance of simplicity and process definition. Quite intentionally, the diagram only shows the key flows of information & product throughout the process, because while the concept is highly universal and applicable across many teams, specific details seldom are.

I would generally expect the practices that have worked well for a Scrum team to work well at scale in this model. Of course, as Nexus explains, some parts — such as backlog refinement — may benefit from being an event in their own right.

Simple Scaled Scrum

The diagram shows some key concepts:

One product should have just one Product Backlog (with just one Product Owner). Multiple teams can work off this single backlog, and the increment should be reviewed collectively across all teams, in just one Sprint Review. Why? Because there is one product and one Product Backlog, reviewing each team’s work in isolation wouldn’t be conducive to effective/appropriate inspection and adaption. Transparency would likely suffer and the process would inevitably become bloated as more meetings and handoffs attempt to compensate for shortcomings.

The individual teams, and the collective, both need their own retrospectives (which ideally should be held every Sprint). Individual teams need retrospectives for the same reasons that they do in any other non-scaled Scrum team, and because they are so dependant and integral to the wider goal and associated processes they benefit from having a formal opportunity to inspect and adapt these aspects as well. The groups should do this collectively, and most preferably without any exceptions — limiting this exercise to team leads or other representatives is in most cases a false economy. If people aren’t able to be involved, even if it just to listen to what’s going on, the group will struggle to self-organise and work effectively.

Low cost of entry to the Product Backlog. The Product Owner is responsible for the backlog, and so they may choose to apply a process around inbound items, to ensure that they are understood and of an acceptable standard (have the necessary attributes, etc.), but crucially this process needs to be simple. The refinement loop can be used to better prioritise items, and apply detail as necessary, etc. but the emphasis on this entire process is simplicity. If it isn't simple, it won't work. Did I mention simplicity is key?

It’s a particularly common pattern for scaled-processes to introduce unnecessary complication and even complexity around this process. This introduces waste, increases cycle time and greatly reduces transparency around the process as a whole. I’ve seen processes where there are six or seven distinct steps/hand-offs to get a simple PBI (like a bug, or action to resolve technical debt), onto a Product Backlog and prioritised. That's six or seven steps before a Scrum team has started their work on it; that's a lot of upfront investment which has potential to produce a lot of waste.

Communities of interest allow knowledge sharing and appropriate long term strategising. When you’ve got a lot of people working towards a common goal on a project, there should be an appropriate platform for people to get together, communicate and share their thoughts. Examples might include discussion about a new JavaScript framework that might be valuable to the team/product, or changes to the unit testing strategy in an effort to improve code quality, or reduce technical debt. They may also provide a platform for things like architectural discussions and strategic actions from both a product and technical perspective.

It is common in larger projects for more than one person to have an interest or stake in the Product. This is particularly true in larger companies. History has taught us that having multiple people responsible for the Product Backlog is a recipe for problems, so providing a recognised platform for people to discuss things outside of the Sprint Review could be useful to fulfil this desire/need. It is important to remember the purpose of the Sprint Review, and that groups such as this cannot and should not take its place.

A key attribute of ‘communities of interest’ is that they are both transparent and open; anybody with an interest should be welcome to be part of them. They should meet as often as necessary, which is probably at least once every couple of Sprints. They probably shouldn’t have any distinct or tangible output in their own right; they shouldn’t be part of a backlog refinement process for example, but their members may choose to act on the discussions and decisions at the appropriate events, such as in backlog refinement or at the Sprint Review.