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Pitfall of Scrum: Stretch Goals

The team decides on how much work it will do in a Sprint. No one should bring pressure on the team to over-commit. This simply builds resentment, distrust and encourages low-quality work. That said, of course teams can be inspired by challenging overall project or product goals. A stretch goal for a Sprint is just a way to 100% guarantee failure. Even the team should not set its own stretch goals.

There are a few interesting principles that apply here. For example, the Agile Manifesto mentions sustainability:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

The Agile Manifesto also points out the importance of trust:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

Stretch goals are incompatible with both of these principles from the Agile Manifesto.

There are two types of stretch goals. The first type are those assigned by outsiders to the team. The second type are those which a team sets for itself. Both types are bad.

Stretch Goals Assigned by Outsiders

The worst extreme of this type of stretch goal is also the most common! This is the fixed-scope-fixed-date project deadline. In this type of stretch goal, the project team, doing Scrum or not, is forced to work backwards from the deadline to figure out how to get the work done. If the team can’t figure this out, managers often say things like “re-estimate” or “just get it done.” (Note: another thing that managers do in this situation is even worse: adding people to the project! Check out “The Mythical Man-Month” by F. Brooks for a great analysis of this problem.)

My anecdotal experience with this sort of thing is simple: quality suffers or sustainability suffers. I once worked with three other people on a mission critical project to help two banks with their merger. There was a regulatory deadline for completing the integration of the two existing systems for things like trading, etc. Fixed-scope-fixed-date. Coffee and sleepless nights were our solution since we tried not to sacrifice quality. We actually ended up working in my home for the last few 24-hour stretches so that we would have access to a shower. Suffice it to say, there’s no way we could have sustained that pace. It’s anti-Agile.

A quick search for ideas and opinions about stretch goals makes it very clear that there is no commonly agreed “correct” answer. However, from an Agile perspective stretch goals assigned by outsiders are clearly against the principles of the Agile Manifesto.

Stretch Goals Set by the Scrum Team

The Scrum Guide states:

The number of items selected from the Product Backlog for the Sprint is solely up to the Development Team. Only the Development Team can assess what it can accomplish over the upcoming Sprint.

For emphasis: what it can accomplish – not what it (the Development Team) wants to accomplish, or what it should accomplish, or what it could accomplish if everything goes perfectly. A Development Team should be accomplishing their Sprint plan successfully (all Product Backlog Items done) on a regular basis. Of course, exceptional circumstances may intervene from time to time, but the team should be building trust with stakeholders. Here’s another story:

I had a good friend. We would always go out for coffee together. We just hung out – chatted about life, projects, relationships. Of course, from time-to-time one or the other of us would cancel our plans. That’s just life too. But there came a time when my friend started cancelling more often than not. There was always a good excuse: I’m sick, unexpected visitors, work emergency, whatever. After a little while of this I started to think that cancelling would be the default. I even got to the point where I was making alternative plans even if my friend and I had plans. I got to the point where I no longer trusted my friend. It didn’t matter that the excuses were always good. Trust was broken.

It doesn’t matter why a team fails to meet a goal. It reduces trust. It doesn’t matter why a team succeeds in meeting a goal. It builds trust. Even among team members. A team setting stretch goals is setting itself up for regular failure. Even if the team doesn’t share those stretch goals with outsiders.

Stretch goals destroy trust within the team.

Think about that. When a team fails to meet its own stretch goal, team members will start to look for someone to blame. People look for explanations, for stories. The team will create its own narrative about why a stretch goal was missed. If it happens over and over, that narrative will start to become doubt about the team’s own capacity either by pin-pointing an individual or in a gestalt team sense.

Trust and Agility

The importance of trust cannot be over-stated. In order for individuals to work effectively together, they must trust each other. How much trust? Well, the Agile Manifesto directly addresses trust:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.

Here is my recent YouTube video about stretch goals… check it out and subscribe to our channel!


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