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.

Basic Transparency

An organization with good communication is like a clear pool, where people can see to the bottom of things.
Organizations with good communication are like clear pools, where people can see to the bottom of things.

Agile processes are famous for transparency.

For anyone who doubts this, or is new to Agile,

  • Transparency is implicit in the first item of the Agile Manifesto. Individuals and interactions are valued over processes and tools, and the best interactions happen when communication channels are open.
  • Transparency is the first of the “three pillars” of Scrum (transparency, inspection, adaptation).
  • Transparency also features prominently in the scaled frameworks built on top of Scrum. In the Nexus (Scaled Professional Scrum) framework, transparency is called for in all artifacts, dependencies and the state of the increment. I’m not personally as familiar with SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) as I am with Nexus, but transparency is a core value of SAFe. I know even less about LeSS (Large Scaled Scrum), but you can read about transparency in LeSS here.

The benefits of transparency

Here’s what happens when groups work in a transparent way:

  • Quality improves. When more people see a product during development, more imperfections are brought to light, and can be addressed before the product is released to customers. An open and safe platform for raising and resolving issues also incentivizes teams to perform better and improve quality.
  • Metrics improve. When everyone can see first hand what’s happening in an organization, data and reporting are confirmed by observation. You may even discover better performance indicators when you have open communication and when data is collected directly at its source.
  • Risks are mitigated. Transparency allows you to see ahead and gives you the opportunity to fix small problems before they become big ones. Risks, internal and external, are easier to spot. Planning is better, and the organization is more likely to see its way towards the most profitable path ahead.
  • Product improvements are realized. Ideas find their way into the open where they can affect positive change. Confident teams that communicate well do better and more innovative work.
  • Quality and productivity work hand in hand. An experiment published in the Harvard Business Review demonstrated that when cooks and customers could see one another, customer satisfaction improved over 17 percent, and service was 13 percent faster.
  • Waste is reduced. Transparency saves you energy and time. When you synchronize with reality, less energy is wasted trying to be something you’re not. That energy can be used to fix anything that you would have wanted to hide. Spend less time re-framing stories and more time fixing things.
  • Culture change. There is a snowball effect when you start being more open in your organization. People who are doing well are proud to share their success. It spreads. High performing teams model success and other teams improve.

How can organizations get better at transparency?

Scrum comes with transparency built-in. For teams who are brave enough to adhere to it, adopting the Scrum framework makes it easier to work transparently. Scrum teams use information radiators to display up-to-the-moment metrics. We meet daily to update one another on work in progress, collaborate and overcome issues. Product Roadmaps, and to an even greater extent, Product Backlog stories are openly discussed. Stakeholders and development teams flesh out product direction and specifications together. The team’s work is demonstrated at the end of each Sprint at the Sprint Review. If you practice the Scrum ceremonies, you are well on your way to reaping the benefits of transparency.

If you’re not using Scrum, you can still create room for mutual transparency to grow by bringing open practices into your daily routine. Encourage candid discussion during your regular status briefings. Simply listen. Hold meaningful feedback sessions after every increment that’s released. Involve the development team in roadmap discussions. Acknowledge that everyone working on the project has a vested interest, and when the project is a success, it is to everyone’s credit.

Aim for a pristine pool of shared information, and reap the rewards of transparency!

The Truth About Stand-Ups

Oil on canvas, by Claude Harrington

People new to Scrum often find the number of meetings daunting. It’s natural to want to avoid meetings, if your experience was that they tend to be non-productive. Within the Scrum framework, however, teams use the structured meetings as tools to improve performance over time. Let’s look at Scrum’s most frequent meeting, the Daily Scrum, and see how this comes about.

I’ll get two things out of the way first…

It’s not a status meeting.

It’s a planning meeting. The purpose of getting together every day is not for each team member to report her status. You don’t need a meeting for that—a group email or a time log serves the purpose. Instead, at the daily meeting, the entire team inspects its work in progress, towards its short-term goal. The team as a whole figures out what it needs to do immediately, to attain that goal. I’ll explain more, but for now, all I ask is please stop thinking “status meeting” and start thinking “mini planning session”.

Standing is optional.

It’s up to the team to agree about how to hold the meeting. Many teams stand, as it keeps the meeting quick and high-energy. The Scrum Guide calls it the Daily Scrum, and doesn’t mandate standing up at all. Maybe your team is more productive if it has the Daily Scrum while jogging around the block.

Now that we have an understanding of some things that Daily Scrum is not, we can begin to understand what it is.

Every Daily Scrum is an investment in a more productive team.

As a Scrum Master, the Daily Scrum is an opportunity for me to observe interactions between teammates, and check in on the health of the team. Here are seven key performance indicators to monitor how well a Scrum team is functioning.

1. We are consistent.

Sticking to the same time and place every day means a minimum of overhead. A meeting location is already reserved. Everyone has it on their schedule. All we need to do is show up, ready to go.

2. We’re self-organized.

Shockingly for many Scrum Masters, the team runs their own Daily Scrums. Healthy Scrum teams don’t report in to a Scrum Master. They speak to one another, and they help each other. The team does the heavy lifting, and the Scrum Master is available as a coach and facilitator. This daily practice of team autonomy builds strong teams.

3. We work together.

Silos are inefficient. If you arrive at the Daily Scrum with the intention of getting it over as soon as possible, so you can head back to your desk and get some real work done, then something is wrong. Working in isolation slows the team down. Let me explain.

At the Daily Scrum, the team shares its latest learnings. Everyone is on the same page, at least once every 24 hours. This is also a chance to re-plan, if needed. Each teammate needs to be aware of what the others are doing in order to synchronize work. If someone moves ahead based on wrong assumptions, everyone’s time is wasted. These are the ways that this daily knowledge sharing increases the team’s performance.

The Scrum Master observes the team’s interactions in the Daily Scrum, and is ready to offer guidance. He may suggest that two developers work together to solve a problem, for example.

4. We don’t phone it in.

Well, literally, yes, you can conference everyone in for a Daily Scrum. I’ll get to that later. I’m talking about presence here. Everyone needs to pay attention for the magic to happen. When everyone listens, ready to jump in and offer help, the Sprint picks up pace. The Scrum Master facilitates by noticing if someone is tuning out, and by keeping communication flowing in positive ways.

5. We’re focused on one goal.

Every member of your team should have the answer to “What is this Sprint’s Goal?” at any moment. Daily Scrum is about the entire team, focused on the Sprint Goal, moving together. Think of a Rugby team, passing the ball to one another as they move down the field. That’s your Scrum team. As a team member, you’re always watching that ball, ready to catch it and pass it again.

6. We are concise.

Daily Scrums are never more than 15 minutes, so each person has at most two minutes to share what they’ve worked on, ask for help, get feedback, and indicate their next move. It’s enough time to get a lot of information across. Over time, the team gets better at communicating the most important bits.

7. We can decide quickly.

Daily Scrums are a practice ground for quick decision-making. The right people are together, along with the freshest, most actionable information. For anything that can be decided immediately, another meeting isn’t needed. For anything that deserves a breakout meeting, the team members can meet immediately after the Daily Scrum.

Being there in person is really important.

Collocated teams are vital in Scrum. Even splitting a team from floor to floor causes disruption. The communication channels that work best for Daily Scrums are, in order of fidelity:

1. Face to face. Meeting in the same space, in real time is by far the very best way to hold a Daily Scrum. Everyone has the advantage of immediacy, eye contact and body language. The team shares the same air and the same light. Standing in a circle, facing one another helps. Each person has the others either in their direct or peripheral vision. People can move around and change places if they need. They can be loud or soft. They cannot use a mute button. They are visible from head to toe.

2. Videoconferencing has many of the advantages of face to face, but even with the best equipment, the experience is degraded significantly. The team still meets at the same time, so immediacy is retained. But every other measure of richness in communication is lost. Eye contact is impossible, since looking directly into a video camera prevents glancing at teammates’ faces as you speak. You have no way of getting any feedback from facial expressions, the way you do in person. Body language is reduced significantly, usually to just heads and shoulders. The best suggestions I’ve heard for making this work are “invest in the best equipment possible on both ends”, and “make sure everyone is videoconferencing, not just the remote workers.” Even people who’ve used videoconferencing successfully strongly recommend supplementing it with frequent face to face meetings.

3. Conference calling. Similar to videoconferencing, you get some immediacy by meeting at the same time. But any information the video channel would have provided is wiped out. People who’ve used conference calling successfully suggest having participants use headsets during the calls. If your company doesn’t have a good conference calling system, you can try a cell phone on speaker to include remote workers.

4. Emailing daily status. Having remote teammates email their status doesn’t provide any immediate feedback at all. It doesn’t encourage the team to engage in a conversation or help a teammate remove impediments. In fact, it puts distance between team members, and discourages them from working together.

Homogeneity.

Whatever method the team chooses, it should be used by everyone. The team’s cohesion is key. If half of the team is videoconferencing while the other half is voice only, the imbalance works against the team.

Make every Daily Scrum count.

Holding a stand-up meeting every morning isn’t doing Scrum. Scrum is all about increasing the value of the team’s time. By paying attention to certain performance indicators, you can use this one, highly focused meeting to as a foundation for building a high performing team.

 

Scrum Timeboxing Is Like Doing 15 Pushups Every Day

To keep on track physically, I do a “minimum daily requirement” routine of exercises. No matter what, I do at least 10-15 minutes every single day. I allow myself to vary the exercises, but I never vary from doing this minimum. This daily goal is in addition to my weekly exercise goals. It keeps my momentum going, and inevitably, when I need to take time off from my weekly goals, it’s easier to get back into my routine, and continue to progress towards my long-term goals. It’s worked so far—it’s been about two years since I started, and I’m still at it.

Some days, the routine doesn’t feel very challenging, so I add more reps or add some weights, still keeping it to under 15 minutes. This morning, it was one of those days for pushing myself harder. It occurred to me, as I did my pushups, that my routine works a lot like timeboxing does in Scrum.

If you’re not familiar with the Agile process Scrum, it segments chunks of work into Sprints of equal lengths of time, as determined by the team. Instead of fixing the scope of a project, the iteration time is fixed. Something demo-able is delivered at the end of each Sprint.

So, you may ask, how is my couple of sets of pushups every morning like a two-week Sprint for a software development team?

Well, just as I do my exercise set every morning, the development team gets into a rhythm of delivering something tangible every single Sprint. As time goes by, I have stronger muscles, and similarly, the development team grows stronger as a team. The developers, Product Owner and QA all get better at setting realistic deliverables for a Sprint. Over time, they plan better and deliver more in the same time period, just as I can do more pushups now than I could when I started!

If you want to read more about timeboxing, this article is a good place to start. It has more than you could possibly ask, including links to some information about Temporal Motivation Theory, as developed by Piers Steel and Cornelius J. König.