Interruptions and Missed Commitments

Drop of water - Interruptions have repercussions and possibly cause teams to miss commitments
Photo by NON on Unsplash

Some Scrum Teams find it difficult to stick to the commitments they make. While it can be for many reasons, a common one is that a team is being interrupted with urgent tasks that take attention away from the work that they planned.

What are some of the tools we can use as Scrum Masters to confirm that interruptions are really a problem for our teams, and to help them adjust to a more predictable way of working? Here are three tools that I’ve used with some success:

1. Make the “interruption” work highly visible to the team, and also to those who are doing the interrupting. 

Making things visible is usually a good idea in general. Going on the idea that interruptions potentially cause a slowdown or drag in the pace of work that was planned, making it easy to notice the interruptions can help people to notice the resulting drag. When everyone can see the drag, we can have more productive conversations, and consider course corrections that might help. 

During a sprint, I might use different colored cards on the Scrum Board to make additional work or scope changes more prominent. At the end of a Sprint, I might show a report during Sprint Review, showing what the Scrum Team actually worked on that was different from what they originally committed to. Most tracking tools can generate reports when stories are added to sprints after Sprint Planning, for example.  

It sounds easy, right? In fact, tracking interruption work can be very easy. The difficulty usually comes in with the discussions that need to happen. In order to get to a place where the team can work more productively, we need to attend to the needs of the people who are causing the interruptions.

One thing that can get in the way of the needed discussions is a team’s own awareness and fear that, by calling attention to the extra interruption work they are doing, they will solicit disapproval. People who feed the team extra work are often powerful and influential. It’s hard to say “no” to a favor from your boss. Being sensitive to this, as a Scrum Master, you might ask the team itself for ideas about what might help in their unique situation. You might work towards better connections and relationships between the team’s Product Owner and adjacent stakeholders. Through conversations, everyone may come to better understandings and agreements about how best to interact with the team, and get the urgent interruption work done without adversely affecting the planned work. This brings me to the second tool.

2. Coach the team in application of the Scrum Values (Commitment, Courage, Focus, Openness, Respect). 

The Scrum Values are always a handy tool. A Scrum Master can help to build an environment of trust by teaching these values. That awareness of the values, and the trust that is built, goes a long way towards resolving problems related to work interruptions.

  • Clearly, Commitment applies here. The Scrum Team has made a commitment at Sprint Planning, and the goals of the Scrum Team may be at risk whenever new work is inserted into the Sprint.
  • With Courage, the Scrum Team members will be able to speak up and escalate when interruptions cause a loss of Focus on their goals. It may take some intervention on the part of the Scrum Master to ensure that the message that the team should not be interrupted gets to the people who need to hear it.
  • The team should be able to display Openness with stakeholders and also with themselves about the challenges of the work. This may happen through ongoing transparent reporting. A conversation could be triggered at a retrospective. A Sprint Review may not be the place to go into a deep dive about why work was not completed, but it can be a place to bring to light some of the challenges that otherwise would be hidden. Once noted, other actions may be initiated.
  • Respect (the idea that the team members are all capable and independent) is always essential. On a team that lacked maturity, I overhead one team member disparage their teammates for being “lazy” and not completing tasks soon enough. What was overlooked was that those team members had been asked to do side work for another initiative for their manager. In this case, respect (of the goals of the Scrum Team) was lacking from the organization, and also within the team.  

3. Coach the team to understand its velocity and to make the most realistic commitments possible. 

Finally, once the “interrupt” work is visible, and we have done all we can to apply the Scrum Values, we should turn our attention to the reality of how much work the team has proven it can complete in a sprint (the velocity). 

Even if the interruptions are not formalized as user stories and brought into sprints, it may be possible to quantify and predict the rate of interruptions. Knowing this as a range will help the team to be more accurate when planning new sprints. If we know, for example, that we have a “drag” rate of about 30-40 hrs of team time per sprint, then we could reserve that time as a buffer during planning. By committing to fewer planned stories during a sprint, there will be a greater chance that the stories we do take on will be completed. We may even come to a place where we can set a service level agreement and communicate that out to other people and teams who make unpredictable requests of us. For example, we may be able to communicate out a lead time for new requests. It may be acceptable to the requestor and everyone may realize that what is being asked is not as urgent as originally thought.

None of this is easy, but those are some of the things I have tried. Please let me know how you have helped your Scrum teams who may be struggling with interruptions that cause them to lose focus from their Sprint Goal. Call me at (407) 223-9964 or show up at one of the Agile Orlando Meetups.

Nourish Your Team

Team Garden
(clockwise from top left) Peony, grape, rose, hydrangea

A healthy team is like a vigorous garden: it thrives in good conditions, and it can weather adverse conditions. Nourish your team regularly. Here are a few ideas that will help keep your team healthy.

Warmth

Your human team is hard wired to respond positively to warm communications. Research supports the idea that treating each other like people is what really matters: it leads to better employee engagement. Practice listening, caring, helping, smiling, eye contact and general friendliness, and encourage all these in your team. Think of the sun that warms the ground and invites seeds to sprout.

Light

Encourage individuals on your team to shed light on the contributions each of them makes. Retrospectives are a great time for this recognition, and there are many resources that can help you get started. Here’s one based on 360-degree feedback. It really can be as simple as asking each person to write one highlight of the past Sprint on a card, based on another team member’s contribution, and putting all the cards up on the wall for discussion.

Compost

Yes, I went there. The flip side of shedding light on the successes of the team is shedding light on the problems. Most people don’t want to go there, but you need to do it. In Scrum, introspection is a regular part of the team’s routine. With practice, the team becomes better at opening up and problem solving together. Think of the rose that thrives when a good compost is mixed in with the soil. All the decaying organic matter feeds the new growth.

Attention

The idea is to tend your team as you would tend a garden. Plants and people thrive when provided good conditions for growth. Check in regularly. Remove weeds. Water as needed. Be aware of individual traits.

What Can The World’s Smartest Lake Teach Us About Building Smart Teams?

Scott K. Johnson wrote this excellent article at Ars Technica about some impressive work being done in mapping and modeling environmental data at Lake George. What’s fascinating to me, is seeing people working together so well, on a huge multi-year project that has a potential for great impact. Some things I see as contributing to this project’s success:

Cross Functional Teams

The  “Jefferson Project” is an interdisciplinary partnership between IBM, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and FUND for Lake George. Each partner brings different skills to the project, and they are collaborating together. Collaboration is a basic model for a successful team. Instead of separate teams of specialists working on their own sub-projects, the groups work with one another on slices of the same project.

Organized Around A Single Goal

The FUND for Lake George states its single driving goal as Stopping the present decline of water quality and achieving sustained protection of Lake George for the next generation. They go even further than that. They want to set the standard for restoration efforts anywhere in the world. I imagine that everyone working on this project is on board with this goal. The people at IBM are probably most interested in pushing the limits of big data. At the same time, they must understand that this work isn’t about the data, but about the data in the service of protecting the lake. On any successful team, each contributor is more valuable when they understand how their contribution provides value to the larger goal.

Information Radiators

Each sensor helps scientists study the impact of stressors on the lake in real time. For a Scrum team, radiating information in real time is also vital. Everyone should be able to see the team’s progress in the moment, without having to wait until the next progress meeting.

Always-Changing Environment / Marketplace

Nothing is static. The Lake George team is moving beyond real-time data. They’re creating sensors that will adjust the sampling size when unusual events are detected. This is just the type of thing that your project team can do. Every meeting is an opportunity to inspect the work in progress. Every Sprint is an opportunity to take a step back and see the big picture. Things will always be changing. Keep in mind the Agile Manifesto value of “responding to change over following a plan”. When you notice big changes on the horizon, it’s time to increase your observations, so that your short term plans can be informed, and you will be ready to modify your course if needed.