October 2, 2012

Sprint "Commitments" are an Amortized Death March

Matt's tweet is provocative: Sprint "commitments" are an amortized death march.

If sprint commitments lead to a death march, something is wrong in your organization. Sprint commitments could be used by poor managers to browbeat the team.

Hey, you guys committed to this. I expect it to be done!

Not good.

The risk of a death march, however, is not the reason to not have a strong sprint commitment. You can (possibly) fix that problem. You can (possibly) have good, enlightened managers. Besides, there are many ways to use Scrum poorly. Should we throw out every misused practice?

No. But sprint commitments are dubious.

It's not the sprint commitment we are after. It's not what we really want in the end. It has no value on its own. What we're after is that thing we hope to get from having the sprint commitment. What we hope to get is a team that is committed to each other, working together to finish what they set out to do. We hope everyone works on what we agree to work on rather than whatever darn thing anyone wants to do. We hope to not have unfinished work at the end of the sprint.

Sprint commitments → no unfinished work at the end

Too bad this is a fallacy. The fallacy is that for each desired outcome B there must exist a cause A.

A → B

In complex adaptive systems it doesn't always work out that way. I might even say it rarely works that way. Whether the sprint goes well or poorly, there are side effects of such policies. But this post isn't about the side effects. For the manager, though, when the sprint goes poorly the best possible outcome is...

Darn, this is harder than anticipated. But I committed to getting it done. Guess I'll put in some overtime.

If what is committed to is generally kept low (appropriate), pace should be sustainable over the long run even with some rare overtime. When appropriate overtime does happen:

That stunk! Not doing that again. Let's commit to less and plan better.

In this way, sprint commitment should drive careful planning.

But is careful planning in batch necessary or is it waste? It can be useful in some contexts, but bogus in others. What's the point of a sprint commitment if you are committing to something very small, knowing that you are going to add more work to the sprint? If we plan less work to meet a strong sprint commitment, and also plan to add more work to the sprint later, then we are approaching continuous planning and might as well make the jump to iteration-less flow (e.g. and use Kanban).

We want a stable velocity. We want teams to be predictable. But requiring a strong sprint commitment is neither necessary nor sufficient. It's other stuff that makes us predictable, namely: finishing sprints cleanly every time; good backlog grooming practices; good story estimation practices (if using Scrum); limiting WIP; not starting work you can't finish in time; the "keep it working" principle; refactoring and SOLID design principles; good release planning and intelligent use of spikes; and so forth.

Just work directly on that stuff.

Truthfully, I've used sprint commitments and have also gone without them. They are useful in certain context, and dangerous in others. I consider the leadership, the managers and scrum masters, the team's agile experience, and how much time I'll have to coach the team before making the call on sprint commitments.

Related Articles:

Matt Barcomb wrote a nice article on good and bad commitments. Go read that and the very thoughtful comments posted in reply.

I briefly touched on sprint commitments in my post on unstable velocity.

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