Fixing Scrum

What’s the worst part of Scrum? For a lot of developers, it’s the daily stand-up meeting. However, since this is a series on estimating, we’re going to look at what I regard the biggest problem in Scrum: Sprint Planning.

First, a note of caution: whilst I’ve witnessed several teams who say they are doing Scrum, I’m not basing this section on those experiences. The problem is, talking about the problems of Scrum based on the reality of Scrum leaves you open to the criticism that you weren’t doing Scrum right in the first place.

Instead, we’ll be looking at Sprint Planning from the archetypal description given in Rubin’s Essential Scrum (2013 edition).

First Principles: The Sprint Review

Work in Scrum is done within periods of time called Sprints. Each sprint ends with a Sprint Review:

“The goal of this activity is to inspect and adapt the product being built… Everyone in attendance gets clear visibility into what is occurring and has an opportunity to help guide the forthcoming development to ensure that the most business-appropriate solution is created.” - Essential Scrum (p26), Rubin

In Risk-First, we tend to call this validation step Meeting Reality: you are creating a feedback loop in order to minimise risk. What is the risk you are minimising? Essentially, we are trying to reduce the risk of the developers building the wrong thing, which could be due to misunderstanding of requirements, or perfectionism, or because the piece of work was ill-conceived in the first place. In Risk-First, the risk of building the wrong thing is called Feature Risk.

Feature Risk mitigated by Meeting Reality

The above diagram demonstrates us mitigating Feature Risk (the risk of not building the right software for our clients) by organising a Sprint Review. But there is a downside to a Sprint Review: it takes time.

Schedule Risk for Stakeholders

And that risk is called Schedule Risk. It is shown in the diagram above: the more feedback you are receiving, the more interruption you are causing to the people giving feedback. So you are trying to Balance Risk: while having a daily review for a software project involving all stakeholders would be over-kill and waste a lot of everyone’s time, having a yearly review would be too-long a feedback loop. Balancing risk here means doing the feedback loop just often enough.

Time-Boxing To The Rescue

“Sprints are time-boxed so that they have a fixed start and end date, and generally they should all be of the same duration. “ - Essential Scrum (p20), Rubin

Time Boxing Causes Coordination Risk

In order to balance the risks, Sprints are time-boxed: rather than just requesting feedback every five minutes or whenever, the idea is that the development team completes a Sprint within a fixed period of time (two weeks being common). On the one hand, this means everyone can have a regular meeting in their diary, and agree up-front about how much of their schedule will be taken up in Sprint Reviews.

But the problem is that now the developers have to coordinate their work to be ready before the Sprint Review starts. Even for a development team of one it can be a challenge to coordinate like this: often, development is completed a few days early, or incomplete by the day of the demo, so it might be easier to move the meeting.

As the number of developers in the team grows, the Coordination Risk increases: rather than bulls-eye-ing a single feature for demo day, you’re now expecting a whole team to do it.

Nevertheless, time-boxing is foundational principle of Scrum. So in order to get time-boxing to work, this means we have to rely on planning and estimating.

Planning And Estimating

Planning and Estimating to reduce Coordination Risk

Now, although the above diagram makes sense (estimating as a mitigation to coordination issues) by this point in this series of articles we should be wary of our ability to estimate development tasks at all:

  • Sometimes, tasks have a Fill-The-Bucket nature. If you have a test plan to run through on six different platforms, and last week doing a single platform took two hours, then your estimate of two days for the lot is probably about right.

  • Sometimes, it’s about finesse. With Fractal-Style problems you know that three days spent on icon design will yield better results than one day, but either way, there will be a set of icons to look at.

  • But sometimes, problems can telescope, as we discussed in Kitchen Cabinets. You start thinking the problem of connecting A to B is simple, but then you realise it involves a call to C and to redesign the whole of D and introduce a new micro-service E… your estimate is toast.

  • Finally, sometimes, you’ll have a problem that’s like a Journey. Maybe you’re trying to set up a new deployment pipeline? The first step, finding servers turned out to be easy, but now you’re trying to license the software to run on them, and it’s taking longer. The journey you have to take is known, but the steps along it are all different. Will you hit the Sprint Review on time? It’s super-hard to say.

Given that estimating is so problematic, does it make any sense to try to mitigate our Coordination Risk using estimates?

As a tool for dealing with Coordination Risk, Estimating is an unreliable foot-gun.

Other Ways To Address Schedule Risk

Schedule Risk for Stakeholders

Let’s go back a step: isn’t there another way to tackle the Schedule Risk problem instead of time-boxing / huge sprint review meeting? As we saw, this led to Coordination Risk issues. Here are several other ways you could solve this problem:

  • Instead of giving live demos of completed features, give video demos of software in progress. In the film industry, this is called Dailies or Rushes, because they produce a reel of all the film shot that day. Why? Again - it’s about risk management: you’re trying to find out if there are any technical issues with the film shot before shooting anything new. Going back and shooting several weeks later can often be impossibly difficult. (A great example being the reshoots of the film “Justice League” involving Henry Cavill, playing Superman. Sadly, when these reshoots were done, he was filming “Mission Impossible: Fallout”, and had grown a moustache, which the director of that film, Chris McQuarrie, couldn’t let him shave. So Superman’s moustache was edited-out using CGI.)

  • Worried stakeholders won’t give feedback? Try and perform the reviews in a chat room for the team, involving all the stakeholders. If you don’t hear back from someone, call them out in the room.

  • Avoid Coordination Risk by not needing to coordinate. If you can break down the project into smaller, still-meaningful units, then you should do that, because it means that you’re reducing the size of the coordination problem, which grows quadratically with the number of actors involved.

Planning Poker

Scrum’s “solution” to this conundrum is not to throw out estimating, but to throw people at the problem: if one developer can’t come up with good estimates, surely a whole team of them can? This is the purpose of “Planning Poker”:

“In Planning Poker, we don’t take averages […]. The goal is not about compromise but instead for the development team to reach a consensus about the estimate […] focused discussion helps obtain a shared understanding of the story.” - Essential Scrum (p133), Rubin

Perhaps this improves estimating, but for me there are two key problems with this:

  • every estimate is now consuming more developer time, and
  • instead of focusing on what should be done, developers are focusing on how long it will take to be done.

10X

I’ve written before about how being a “10X Developer” largely comes down to having already visited the terrain. This implies that at different times we can all be either 1X or 10X Developers.

But with the power of hindsight, it’s clear that at different times, on different projects, whole teams can be either 1X or 10X.

  • For example, when working in 2002 at an investment bank, my team delivered software which is used by around a hundred people for about ten minutes each day, providing an important risk-management function. It is still running, unchanged 18 years later (at the time of writing). We wrote this as a team of three people for about six months. With the benefit of hindsight, this was clearly high-value work.

  • Alternatively, at a different employer a few years’ ago, I worked in a large team of about 15 developers, building a data service layer for an application, probably we worked on it for a year and a half. At some point, things started to fall apart, and the team was disbanded. A colleague and I re-wrote the whole thing in three months together. Again with hindsight, some of this was high-value, some very low: the re-write was better value because it was radically simpler. Could we have done it that way in the first place?

  • At another employer, I spent the summer building some testing tools for a good six months before we all decided it was a waste of time and packed it in. This was no-value. Could we have figured that out sooner?

What I am trying to say is:

It’s much more important to focus on building the right thing than nickel-and-diming it over the estimate process.

What’s the point in getting an estimate right if you’re building totally the wrong thing? Am I alone in finding that 90% of everything I do goes in the bin, more-or-less straight away?

The Key Question

” Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” -Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

How can we, as software developers, minimise the chance of building the wrong thing?

Scrum

Look above at the diagram what Scrum is trying to do to mitigate Feature Risk:

  • We Meet Reality to ensure we’ve got a feedback loop.
  • We time-box to avoid wasting stake-holders’ time (Schedule Risk).
  • We do planning poker to try and avoid the Coordination Risk problem of everyone needing to complete their work for the end of the Sprint.

But actually, we’re now three degrees away from the original problem of trying to build the right thing. The team is focused on figuring out how much they can get done in a Sprint, not whether they are building the right thing. Scrum purists might argue that this is the purpose of the Sprint Goal, which should be agreed in advance.. but actually this is usually just a bunch of items from the backlog, shoe-horned into a sprint-sized chunk of time.

If the thesis that “90% of everything is waste” is true, then Planning Poker is also a waste, and we should devise a planning process to avoid this.

In the next article we’ll look at how we might do that.

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Rob Moffat
Rob Moffat Author of Risk-First Software Development. Developer. Working in the UK.