I was providing advice to a fellow UK-based Scrum Master last week after they came to me with questions about how to help their struggling team.

One of the behaviours that the team was demonstrating was a willingness for items to roll-over from one Sprint to the next, without question or consequence.

This team’s problems are a complex web of bad practices, many of which exist because of their earlier bodged attempts. They have deviated too far from anything that you might recognise as a sustainable agile process, and they now clutch onto whatever is left of their acid-rain destroyed relics from their time of hope.

It raises the question though, when a team is happy with continuous flow (well, continuous ‘chunky vomit’), why are they using iterations at all? What value do they, their business, and indeed their customers get from this way of working?

In Scrum, the Sprint serves many purposes. Above all though, it’s a time box within which the team can creatively and ingeniously craft solutions to complex problems. It gives the team an uninterrupted period to ‘get their heads down’ and work together to build something awesome, and it gives the business a commitment that within a certain period their agreed goal will have been met.

For the business, risk is greatly reduced — no matter how badly things go wrong, they have only lost the duration of the Sprint. There’s no possibility of three months of effort being waste when a fully tested, usable and potentially shippable increment is being produced every couple of weeks.

When you work in a way that fixes scope in a Sprint Backlog, you start to lose the benefits that a time-boxed iteration provides. Likewise, when your focus is on resource utilisation rather than delivery of a valuable working increment you soon detract from the significance of ‘done’, of achieving the Sprint Goal, and ultimately satisfying the customer.

The “continuous vomit" way of working, where you get a stream mirky fluid with occasional chunks of substance doesn’t do anything to control risk, or to protect the team. The ever-growing backlog places pressure on the team to ‘get things done’ rather than ‘to provide value’ (and no, they are not the same thing), and because everybody inevitably becomes obsessed with things at a task level, as opposed to a product level, the product inevitably suffers.

The caveat

“Continuous vomit” is not the same as ‘continuous flow’, although the high level concept is the same. “Continuous vomit” can be thought of as a type of continuous flow, though the water does not run clear so nothing is transparent, and rather than the ‘flow’ referring to valuable work, the ‘flow’ here is a mirky stream of “work” interspersed with unpredictable chunks of value in varying size and colour.

Continuous flow is a valid and acceptable way of doing things, “continuous vomit” is simply disgusting and makes nobody happy.