Making promises you can keep WITHOUT Scrum Sprint Commitment using Classes of Service

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How can we make promises we can keep without a commitment to the sprint content?

So I convinced you that the Scrum Sprint Commitment is not such a great idea. I convinced you it is mainly there for learning. You want to move to a commitment to try to meet the forecast instead of committing to deliver the whole forecast. But your Product Owner has a real problem with this. He understands all this learning rationale but his stakeholders want to know whether he can promise then a certain delivery on a certain date. So can we make promises without the Sprint Commitment?

Making promises to deliver certain backlog items in this sprint

Sometimes a Scrum team is expected to deliver certain backlog items for a specific sprint. Examples can be stuff other teams need to consume, a fixed date commitment to clients, a regulatory requirement etc. Such backlog items have a very high cost of delay so we want to really make sure when we promise to deliver them we deliver them. One way to make sure that is to put them at the top of the Sprint Backlog. If the team is working down the Sprint Backlog by priority (as they should) there is a higher chance they will deliver these backlog items.

But I believe we should be more explicit. We should have a clearer signal that these are special fixed-date items and clearer policies for what to do to make our promises around them. In Kanban teams use classes of service for this purpose. I recommend Scrum Teams in such a context simply do the same. Mark these items with a special color in the Backlog. Establish policies such as “If they are in danger we make whatever effort needed to deliver. Sustainable Pace will be put on hold”. Visualizing that these items are different will earn them a different class of service by the team. It also means that normal items without this fixed-date commitment might be put aside to make the extra effort to deliver those, even at the price of overall throughput. These items might call for deeper estimation and planning up front than normal items.

One key point is to make sure that these fixed-date items are not the majority of items in the Sprint Backlog, otherwise they cannot rely on preferential service. If you have a case of your whole work being fixed-date driven you need to be extra careful with planning and consider taking a time-buffer to protect against the inherent variability in sprint results.

With time the Scrum Team and Product Owner will learn about their ability to deliver these items and might be able to make promises earlier before the Sprint Planning, knowing that the price will only be the effect on other normal items in the sprint.

 

Making promises to deliver on a bigger project across several sprints

I won’t go deeply into this aspect in this post. Normal Agile Release Planning using history of throughput/velocity and setting hard commitments and soft commitments is the way to make promises you can keep. This means that within each sprint there will be a certain level of hard commitment related to the overall project hard commitment. If that level of commitment is already a stretch for the team then you have a dangerous project in which you cannot really expect to have safe-to-fail thinking or improvement, rather a tight focus on meeting commitment. Sometimes we have those projects. If you are always doing these kinds of projects time to look in the mirror and have a discussion about whether you are really trying to set up the organization for opportunities to improve/learn or just constantly meet commitments without any slack for improvement.

The Scrum Sprint Commitment/Forecast as an Expectation

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Disclaimer –  I’m a well-known Scrum Sprint Commitment basher. But in the last few weeks especially while processing the Lean Conference Boston Keynote by Steven Spear I have a fresh perspective I wanted to share.

There is no improvement without learning

One of Spear’s key points was that there is no improvement without learning. There is no learning without surprises. There are no surprises without setting expectations. Specifically challenging expectations that will be missed occasionally. See a quote from one of his Harvard Business Review articles about how Toyota really learns:

We argued that Toyota’s much-noted commitment to standardization is not for the purpose of control or even for capturing a best practice, per se. Rather, standardization—or more precisely, the explicit specification of how work is going to be done before it is performed—is coupled with testing work as it is being done. The end result is that gaps between what is expected and what actually occurs become immediately evident. Not only are problems contained, prevented from propagating and compromising someone else’s work, but the gaps between expectations and reality are investigated; a deeper understanding of the product, process, and people is gained; and that understanding is incorporated into a new specification, which becomes a temporary “best practice” until a new problem is discovered.

I got a copy of Spear’s book the High Velocity Edge at LSSC12 and I intend to read it in the upcoming months to try and get more insights into this concept of Expectation-driven learning.

Expectation-driven Learning applied to Scrum

So one way to see the Sprint Forecast is as setting an expectation of how much work is going to be done before it is performed and committing to try working as effectively as we can to try and meet that forecast. Sometimes there will be a gap between our forecast and the real amount of work done, which is an invitation to learn about our real capabilities, our processes and our people and drive new experiments for how to deliver at a higher level. I see this as a healthy use of commitment.

This again explains why a team that meets its forecast each and every time might be a predictable team but not necessarily a hyper-productive team and for sure not a learning team. For learning you need hypothesize that you can stretch yourself a little beyond your current capabilities supported by an experiment for how to achieve that stretch. But hypothesis and experiments have this nature of sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. So you would expect to sometimes miss your forecast and have to learn something from it. Again, no learning without surprises.

This frame of thinking by the way brings Scrum and Kanban even closer in my perspective. It re-emphasizes how working in a pull system driven by commitment to either WIP Limits or Sprint Forecast are very similar concepts of constraints and expectations – explicit process policies that drive learning. This learning is not less important than the ability to predict delivery outcomes that comes together with working in this pull system.

What can we do different tomorrow morning

Scrum Team? Make sure you set challenging sprint forecast, supported by clear hypothesis and experiments of how  you will reach that forecast while still in sustainable pace. Commit to try. Even more importantly commit to learn if the experiment fails. Remember this is a safe-to-fail experiment.

Working with Kanban? Make sure you set challenging WIP limits, supported by clear hypothesis and experiments of how you will sustain this WIP limit while still delivering. Commit to trying. Even more importantly commit to learn if you need to exceed WIP limits. Remember this is a safe-to-fail experiment.

Note the similarity between the two environments! same phrases chosen on purpose.

Manager? Give your teams permission to experiment. Expect them to experiment. Expect them to commit to trying and learning. DON’T expect them to always meet the forecast/WIP limit or you will slow down learning. Expect them not to ignore their commitments. Expect them to come to you with requests for assistance and ideas how to achieve lower WIP limits or higher sprint forecasts. Expect them to try some of those ideas on their own without any help. Finally and probably first thing to do – Teach them that there is no hyper-productivity without improvement. There is no improvement without learning. There is no learning without surprises. And there are no surprises when there are no expectations.

 

 

Scrum Sprint Commitment Rant

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Going on a Rant

If there’s one thing that makes me mad whenever I see it is teams abusing the commitment concept in scrum. I’ve been on a rampage against dysfunctional sprint commitments for a while now, but lately my thoughts have crystalized a bit, especially when I had a chance to discuss this with Jim benson, Alan Shalloway, Chris Hefley and Jon Terry last week at Lean Kanban Benelux 2011.

Background

So what is the problem? Well quite often you see scrum teams that finish sprints out of breath, out of quality, out of joy. You also teams that start the sprint full of numbing fear, set a low bar and that low bar becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Add to that Product Owners, Scrum Masters and managers all spending precious time worrying about whether we are able to make accurate sprint commitment, instead of working to improve the actual capability of the team.

It’s quite sad actually. Surely that’s not what scrum should look like and indeed other teams have energized focused sprints where they deliver what they can, stretch their abilities just the right amount and finish a sprint with just the right energy and mindset to joyfully go into the next one.

So what’s causing this?

Well, let’s start with the out of breath teams. It typically starts with unrealistic commitments they make in the sprint planning. They make those commitments either because they’re pushed to do it explicitly or implicitly. Yes, scrum says the team should pull according to their capability. But something about the way this all works de-emphasizes actual capability of the team and motivates them to try to take on more than they can handle.
With this in play, they start and since there is a lot in their sprint backlog they have the green light to start many things in parallel. A few days later, in the last mile of the sprint, it’s still many items in progress and it’s either an unsustainable effort to reach the finish line, cutting corners or having a very disappointing sprint result. In our #LKBE11 discussion we referred to those as mini-death-marches…

With teams living in fear it is a different but related story. It starts with the message/spirit conveyed to them by their Product Owner, managers or previous life management culture. When they hear commitment they hear “miss that and you’re in trouble”. And if the ecosystem is such that meeting the sprint commitment is more important than the overarching purpose of the project/release/feature they will be driven to satisfy what they perceive as important – being predictable at the sprint level. So they make a safe commitment. Usually this is achieved by taking safety in the estimates. And so starts a self-fulfilling prophecy, as described by Parkinson’s law and Donald Reinertsen’s principle of the expanding work.

It doesn’t help that the team thinks that if they are able to deliver more, there is no turning back – from that point on they will be asked to deliver more on a consistent basis.

Lets pause here for a second – Isn’t it a reasonable expectation? Shouldn’t the team commit and deliver more in the future if they’re able to? The problem is that even during a short 1-4 weeks sprint, there’s still a lot of unavoidable uncertainty and variability. In exactly what we need to accomplish (requirement space), in how to do it (problem space) and also in how much time will we have for it (capacity). A lot of teams try to eliminate this variability and spend a lot of effort on it. Planning meetings grow longer, people’s capacity is planned at the micro-level…

Many teams will oscillate between over-commitment and under-commitment exactly because of this variability of course. They and their management will be frustrated if they’re measure for effectiveness is meeting the commitment. The only way to consistently meet a commitment is either unsustainable pace, or making a really safe commitment.

Lets eliminate commitment

Well, just as an exercise for now, to see why it’s there in the first place…

Without a sprint commitment, how will the sprint look like? Probably we will see people taking on work from all over the place. They will start at the top priority, but their nature will lead them to start many other backlog items since there is no focusing force urging them to stop starting and start finishing. So we need commitment, or something else, to encourage a team to focus on a few things and finish them first. An alternative to commitment at the stories level is to say we are focusing on a single feature so let’s finish it before moving on to anything else.

Commitment as a Focusing mechanism

Wait – this is the Scrum Sprint Goal – Teams are supposed to agree on a Sprint Goal they will focus on. The detailed story level commitment is an elaboration on that anyhow. If our product backlog is very fragmented and not feature oriented we will have a tough time using an effective sprint goal though. This is something to wonder about in and of itself… but if it’s indeed the business reality that we are doing many small things, we need another focusing guidance. That guidance can be “we think we can finish at least 8 stories, hopefully 4 more, so lets start with 8, get a good feeling we can finish them, and ONLY THEN move on to the 4 others”. Here, the team is still using the sprint commitment, but they’re using it for themselves as a focusing / work in process limiting mechanism.

Containers

Another problem we might have without commitment is that the work will expand uncontrollably. There is no finish line so there is no container. One thing that might help is very energizing purpose of where we need to get at the end of the Feature/Project/Release and why it needs to be at a certain point in time. Seeing our progress towards that goal (or lack of progress…) will help energize our efforts and reduce the expansion of work.

Commit to Capabilities Improvement

Another thing that might help is to start looking at our capability as a team and make a commitment not to exactly what we deliver but in general to improve our capabilities. The capability we care about is velocity as well as ability to turn out the top priority items in the backlog as soon as possible since they are the highest priority. So let’s monitor our capabilities over time and try to make them more predictable first and improve them as a next step. Specifically, measuring Velocity can be done without making any sprint commitment. Just track the velocity for each sprint, preferably on a control chart so you can start to understand the variability in your capabilities.

How can we make promises without commitment?

This is a point I love. On one hand Agile diehards say there is no commitment in agile – “we will just work sprint to sprint and avoid any clear external commitment the business can count on”. On the other hand if you start a discussion about losing the sprint commitment they and others start talking about “how can it even work without the team making a clear commitment and sticking to it?”. Bottom line, the sprint commitment doesn’t help you one bit in making external commitments and meeting them. It’s simply orthogonal to it. You make external commitments based on size estimations and historical/estimated capabilities. You meet external commitments by monitoring where you are towards them and adjusting scope, resources, pace sprint by sprint. If you use the sprint commitment as you should, it gives you nothing towards that goal. Accuracy in sprint commitments is micro-predictability. The business cares about mezzo/macro predictability. Same like a long-term stock investor doesn’t care about the fluctuations within a day or a week, they care about the stock performance over a quarter or a year. The team should care about reducing variability in its capabilities eg. have a lower variability in Velocity, so more aggressive mezzo/macro commitments can be taken on while still allowing safe and sustainable delivery.

How can other teams count on us if we don’t have a clear commitment for the sprint content?

What if we are in an environment where other teams in the group/portfolio count on deliveries from us on a sprint by sprint basis? If we don’t have any commitment how will they know when to expect the delivery from us? If they intend to work in parallel to us, how will they know whether to plan for this or not?

There are a couple of ways to look at this. If 80% of the work is consumed by other teams then we should probably consider the organizational design. Maybe it would be better to work as a single team. Maybe it is a case of us providing a service that is consumed by many other teams, and then it might be better to move towards a pull system – where there is less reliance on dates and rather an agreement on priority, an understanding of the capability in the form of typical lead time from requesting a service from us to the time we deliver it, and then the consumers using that service whenever it is ready, either at their next sprint, or even better as soon as its ready. If you’re thinking this will make planning sprints more complicated and prone to changes you are right. The solution can be to move to full pull mode at the team level, or reduce the batch size you plan for, meaning shorten the sprint length.

If it’s just sporadic work that others depend on, make sure that is what you start with and make a commitment to deliver it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the term Class of Service comes to mind at this point…

What will be the engine of continuous improvement if we don’t have a target commitment to strive for?

Scrum is about Continuous Improvement, right? What drives this? Isn’t it the need to meet commitments? to be better about commitments?

Well, not exactly. The thing that is driving Continuous Improvement is the fact that there is a container, composed of a certain scope to focus on, a certain time to do it in, and the people/capacity to do it with. Think of circling the team with a rope telling them now move together towards the target. This will cause a lot of pain. Some people are faster, others are slowing the team down. Some impediments come up and cause problems. But the rope keeping the team together is forcing them to deal with the problems rather than defer them by making progress on things outside the container just to maintain the comfortable feeling of progress.

So in order to maintain this improvement-inducing container we need the time, the team, and a certain scope to focus on. We can do that with the Sprint Forecast mentioned before.

One important concept in Continuous Improvement is to have a vision / target condition to strive for. What is that target condition in a Scrum environment? As mentioned above, this typically is to improve capabilities.

Improving throughput/velocity requires more scope in each container.

How do we translate improving business agility to the container? The ability to define a shorter time frame that the team can still deliver in. The shorter the time frame the more opportunities to change direction without causing waste. Problem is that there is a limit to this. Work takes time, and there’s a limit to how small we can slice it to still be able to use a container of this structure. That is why, at some level, in order to improve business agility even further, we need to move to another form of container, one which limits the amount of things we are working on as a team at each point in time.

(Clarifying note – If you’re reading this to mean get to a certain level with Scrum then move to Kanban, that’s not what I mean. You indeed will benefit from Kanban at this level, but you can start your journey with Kanban in the first place, or move to it regardless of where you are on the way)

So can we get rid of the Sprint Commitment or not?

Well, my personal opinion is that we can live without a Sprint Commitment as currently practiced by the majority of Scrum Teams out there. It seems the creators of Scrum think along similar lines, as they replaced Sprint Commitment with Sprint Forecast in the latest Scrum Guide

I personally think commitment is important, it’s only a question what you commit to. I prefer to focus on the following types of commitments:

  • Commit to learn about your capabilities, care about them and continuously improve them, by using a focusing mechanism challenging the team as a whole.
  • Commit to deliver the class of service that the business and other teams expect, which means delivering on time when it matters, delivering the most throughput when it matters more, etc.

 

Some more ideas to try at home…

Before we conclude this long post – Some related experiments you might want to try at home…

  • If you feel you are over stretching, For a few sprints try setting a very low forecast and meeting it and see how it looks like. Talk about it. Learn from it.
  • Try limiting the amount of Features/Goals in one sprint. Talk about what it changes in the energies and focus of the team. If you cannot set a limit, that’s an interesting discussion in and of its own, that you should have.
  • Use the Sprint Goal and Sprint Stretch more aggressively. Set a lower goal, and commit to deliver the goal first, and as much of the stretch as possible. Goal should be something you can consistently deliver 95% of the time. (Mike Cohn recommends basing that goal on the mean of the 3 worst sprints out of last 8, another way is to use 2 standard deviations below the mean if you want to take a more statistics oriented approach). whether 95%, 85% or lower is your call. But the expectation should be that if there is a difficulty meeting even this commitment, it’s not forbidden to pick up the pace a bit in order to meet a commitment. Learn from it at the end of the sprint and plan more effectively next time.
  • Read about the XP Planning Game and try it… Seems the idea that iterations can be effective without a commitment is not a new one 🙂

Extra Reading

Conclusion

Scrum has some good things going for it. The Scrum-style Planning Game and Sprint Commitment as currently understood and practiced by most teams and organizations is not one of them. I hope this post will help at least some of those improve their results as well as their happiness.

My slides from Lean Kanban Benelux 2011 – Commitments and Energies in a Kanban system

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I’m currently at LKBE11 enjoying the great lineup of speakers and great atmosphere.
As for my part, I’m 50% done…

Below is my Prezi for Commitments and Energies in a Kanban/Pull system.
I’ll share tomorrow’s prezi tomorrow once I finish some last responsible moment tweaks based on things I heard today and want to emphasize / relate to.

Enjoy and let me know what you think.