Tag Archives: inception

Pitfall of Scrum: Excessive Preparation/Planning

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Regular big up-front planning is not necessary with Scrum. Instead, a team can just get started and use constant feedback in the Sprint Review to adjust it’s plans. Even the Product Backlog can be created after the first Sprint has started. All that is really necessary to get started is a Scrum Team, a product vision, and a decision on Sprint length. In this extreme case, the Scrum Team itself would decide what to build in its first Sprint and use the time of the Sprint to also prepare some initial Product Backlog Items. Then, the first Sprint Review would allow stakeholders to provide feedback and further develop the Product Backlog. The empirical nature of Scrum could even allow the Product Owner to emerge from the business stakeholders, rather than being assigned to the team right from the start.

Starting a Sprint without a Product Backlog is not easy, but it can be done. The team has to know at least a little about the business, and there should be some (possibly informal) project or product charter that they are aware of. The team uses this super basic information and decides on their own what to build in their first Sprint. Again, the focus should be on getting something that can be demoed (and potentially shippable). The team is likely to build some good stuff and some things that are completely wrong… but the point is to get the Inspect and Adapt cycle started as quickly as possible. Which means of course that they need to have stakeholders (customers, users) actually attend the demo at the end of the Sprint. The Product Owner may or may not even be involved in this first Sprint.

One important reason this is sometimes a good approach is the culture of “analysis paralysis” that exists in some organizations. In this situation, an organization is unable to do anything because they are so concerned about getting things right. Scrum is a framework for inspect and adapt and that can (and does) include the Product Backlog. Is it better for a team to sit idle while someone tries to do sufficient preparation? Or is it better to get started and inspect and adapt? This is actually a philosophical question (as well as a practical question). The mindset and philosophy of the Agile Manifesto and Scrum is that trying to produce valuable software is more important that documentation… that individuals and how they work together is more important than rigidly following a process or tool. I will agree that in many cases it is acceptable to do some up-front work, but it should be minimized, particularly when it is preventing people from starting to deliver value. The case of a team getting started without a product backlog is rare… but it can be a great way for a team to help an organization overcome analysis paralysis.

The Agile Manifesto is very clear: “The BEST architectures, requirements and designs emerge out of self-organizing teams.” [Emphasis added.]

Hugely memorable for me is the story that Ken Schwaber told in the CSM course that I took from him in 2003.  This is a paraphrase of that story:

I [Ken Schwaber] was talking to the CIO of a large IT organization.  The CIO told me that his projects last twelve to eighteen months and at the end, he doesn’t get what he needs.  I told him, “Scrum can give you what you don’t need in a month.”

I experienced this myself in a profound way just a couple years into my career as an Agile coach and trainer.  I was working with a department of a large technology organization.  They had over one hundred people who had been working on Agile pilot projects.  The department was responsible for a major product and executive management had approved a complete re-write.  The product managers and Product Owners had done a lot of work to prepare a product backlog (about 400 items!) that represented all the existing functionality of the product that needed to be re-written.  But, the big question, “what new technology platform do we use for the re-write?” had not yet been resolved.  The small team of architects were tasked with making this decision.  But they got stuck.  They got stuck for three months.  Finally, the director of the department, who had learned to trust my advice in other circumstances, asked me, “does Scrum have any techniques for making these kind of architectural decisions?”

I said, “yes, but you probably won’t like what Scrum recommends!”

She said, “actually, we’re pretty desperate.  I’ve got over a hundred people effectively sitting idle for the last three months.  What does Scrum recommend?”

“Just start.  Let the teams figure out the platform as they try to implement functionality.”

She thought for a few seconds.  Finally she said, “okay.  Come by this Monday and help me launch our first Sprint.”

The amazing thing was that the teams didn’t lynch me when on Monday she announced that “our Agile consultant says we don’t need to know our platform in order to get started.”

The first Sprint (two weeks long) was pretty chaotic.  But, with some coaching and active support of management, they actually delivered a working increment of their product.  And decided on the platform to use for the rest of the two-year project.

You must trust your team.

If your organization is spending more than a few days preparing for the start of a project, it is probably suffering from this pitfall.  This is the source of great waste and lost opportunity.  Use Scrum to rapidly converge on the correct solutions to your business problems instead of wasting person-years of time on analysis and planning.  We can help with training and coaching to give you the tools to start fast using Scrum and to fix your Scrum implementation.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.

[UPDATE: 2015/08/19] I’ve just added a video to the “Myths of Scrum” YouTube series that adds a bit to this:

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Agile Inception: Facilitating Innovation Towards Valuable Results

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I recently had the opportunity to help facilitate a client’s “Innovation Challenge”.  Basically, the concept is to get a bunch of people in the room, give them a business challenge and see what they come up with.

I have to say that the format of the workshop that I used is heavily inspired by a training that I did recently called Specification By Example by Gojko Adzic.  I strongly recommend this seminar as well as the book.  Another strong influence is The Inmates are Running the Asylum… by Alan Cooper.  The workshop that I have developed is a sort of hybrid approach, with my own flavour added to the mix.  During an early iteration of the workshop, I didn’t have a title and one of the participants suggested “Agile Inception”.  I think that title works in a space where Agile is established and well understood (e.g. hopefully this blog).  At the same time, this workshop can be run with people who have no prior experience or knowledge of Agile and without even mentioning the word Agile.  This is also good in certain environments where people have developed an Agile allergy.

Anyhow, my goal for the day was to facilitate the building of shared understanding of the challenge itself as well as some ways that the organization could innovate around that challenge through conversation and collaboration.

From the opening remarks it became clear that the product at the centre of the “challenge” was actually in deep crisis:  a shrinking market combined with shrinking market share.  The product had generated approximately $18M in revenue in 2009, compared with $10.4M projected for 2014.  That’s half dead in some people’s books.  The clear Goal was to reverse that trend, starting with at least $11M in 2015.  They needed a powerful jolt of life-giving innovation energy to defibrillate their failing product’s heart.

There were no shortage of ideas about how the product could become better & more profitable.  In fact, there were many, many ideas.  Too many, perhaps.  Once we had established our working agreement for the day, we did a Starfish Retrospective exercise to make visible all of the things that the group wanted to keep doing, start doing, stop doing, do more of and do less of.  Many post-it notes were stuck on the board and we left them there as a reminder of all of the things that people were thinking about that could help us to consider how the product and ways of working on it could be improved.

Then we talked about the Goal.  True innovation—that is, tangible, innovative results with clear benefits—requires a group to focus on a single, clear, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) Goal that everyone in the organization understands and is committed to achieving.  Often times, as was the case with the group on Thursday, taking time to establish shared understanding of the goal can seem redundant and tedious (“we already know what the goal is…”).  However, as we learned through the process of working in small groups to re-articulate understanding of the Goal back to the “customer” (the person paying for everyone to be there) this often requires some further conversation.  Indeed, when the groups presented their understanding of the Goal, there were gaps that needed to be filled by the “customer”.  It took less than 30 minutes to discuss, adapt and confirm the Goal with the customer.  The value of this investment of everyone’s time was tremendous.  The conversation made it clear that shared understanding had already been established to a degree and enabled the group to build on what was already there to make the Goal “SMARTer” in the minds of all of the participants.

A single, transparent business Goal helps us to innovate with focus—to create the right thing.  In addition, we need to develop a single Persona—the ideal, “imaginary” user of the product.  The larger group broke into smaller groups for the subsequent discussions.  The groups worked separately and generated a the details for a few personas.  All 3 personas added value to the conversation.  The Persona of “Lisa” was particularly compelling to the “customer” because she had a clear goal of her own and through innovation, her goal could be aligned with the overall business Goal to create a powerful, “new” product that just might reverse the downward trend.

The next step in innovating with focus in order to generate the best ideas possible: build shared understanding of how Lisa can pursue her goal through her experience of the product in order for the business Goal to be achieved.  In other words, Lisa needs a story.  Her story needs a beginning and an end (for now, until the next story) and all the stages of her journey need to be integrated into a coherent whole.

The last step was for the groups to brainstorm and come up with different ways that the product can deliver Lisa’s story in order to realize the Goal.

I wish I could say more about the really cool ideas that the group came up with, but I am erring on the side of caution when it comes to protecting my client’s competitive advantage.

To wrap up the session, we took a quick, anonymous gauge of how confident the participants felt about achieving the Goal.  Of the 13 participants, two gave their confidence a score of 8/10, six gave a score of 7/10, four scored themselves a 6/10 and one was a 3/10, for an average of 6.5/10.  Not bad, but clearly some work still to go.  So what’s next for them?

Next steps:
  • Get the technical folks involved in the conversation (ideally, they are there from the beginning)
  • Build an increment of their solution
  • Review
  • Continue the conversation and collaboration to build shared understanding 
  • Re-gauge the confidence score
  • Iterate  
  • Repeat 
  • The likelihood of achieving the Goal increases with every iteration


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