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When teams fail to meet their sprint commitments…

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

It is bound to happen: the team over-commits on the work they are plannng to deliver for a sprint. It happened just this week, actually. Ok, I’ll be honest – the team has been slipping for two straight iterations now. So what’s a team to do?

The initial instinct of many teams is to increase the duration of the sprint – in our case, from 2 weeks to, say 3 or maybe 4 weeks.

The more appropriate response, however, is somewhat counterintuitive: decrease the sprint duration.

This approach is described in Johanna Rothman’s excellent intro to Agile project management, “Manage It!”.

Why does this work?

We can start thinking about the underlying reasons that might result in a team to miss their sprint goals.

  • Why did the team miss their sprint goals?
    • They didn’t have enough time to complete what they committed to.
  • Why didn’t they have enough time?
    • There they overcommitted.
  • Why did they over-commit?
    • They were wrong about the effort required to complete their commitments.
  • Why were they wrong?
    • Their estimations were off.

So if we drill down to actual root causes here, we find a perfectly plausible reason for the slippage: the estimates were off. We need to do better estimates. Increasing the sprint duration is really just an attempt to alleviate the symptoms – not address the root causes.

How does a shortened iteration help with better estimates? If we are using our sprints properly, then should only be committng to stories that can be completed during a single sprint. Shorter sprints force the team to decompose stories into smaller chunks (Rothman calls these “inch pebbles”) in order to fit them in. Smaller chunks are generally easier to wrap your head around and easier to estimate. Smaller chunks tend to have less variation and are therefore more likely to be delivered on target. In Lean terms, we can think of smaller sprint commitments as smaller batch size – a good thing.

Of course, there is no guarantee your team will learn how to better estimate what they can commit to. Even if this were the case, shortened iterations have one additional benefit: you know that you’re off track sooner. And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

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