By Michael Bosch, CSP, PMI-ACP, CSM, CSPO
KAI Partners is excited to share a guest blog post by Michael Bosch, Agile Services Director of Brightline Solutions, Inc., a locally-based firm offering Agile Delivery and Change Management Services to public sector organizations and private sector firms.
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Establishing all the components of an Agile framework (even a lightweight one) can be a daunting task for any organization. If yours is one that has decided to take the transformation plunge, then you’re likely planning (or have already started) your iteration cadence.
Timeboxed development periods, known as iterations or sprints (the latter promoted in the Scrum methodology), are the foundational rhythm to the “groove” of Agile. Supported by other elements such as roadmapping, release planning, demonstrations, and retrospectives, sprints are the dominant architectural feature of the Agile framework. And for good reason:
Sprints are where all the work is performed and where the innovation occurs.
The best sprint lengths are one to three weeks. If multiple Agile teams are working in your organization, the common wisdom is to have them running on a synchronized sprint schedule. The most critical aspect of running an iteration is that the team is formed in such a way that it can perform the work foreseeably asked of it, that the team is empowered and entrusted to a sufficient degree, and that the entire product community (not just the team, but everyone involved in its work) understands the mindsets, roles, and expectations required in Agile.
With that foundation in place, you’re ready to start looking to optimize your team’s sprint so that success becomes predictable. Below are seven things high-performing Agile teams do that you can use to ensure your sprints are optimized for business-driven delivery.
1. Create and Promote a Sprint Theme or Goal: One of my favorite ways to focus a team on the sprint is to ask the members to put together a headline of what is to be produced, accomplished, and attained in the upcoming iteration. I’ll ask, “If this next sprint was a newspaper article, what is its headline?” This technique allows the team to:
- be concise and pithy,
- create understanding amongst themselves,
- share insights; and
- have fun putting a “brand” on their effort to keep a sharp focus on what’s being delivered and why.
2. Encourage the Product Owner and Sponsors to Address the Team: Another stand-by technique to promote success in a sprint is to allow time for the product owner, sponsor, or both to speak to the team about why the planned work is important. Have them speak about the features that will be created and why these are important to the organization, its customers, and their users. I once had a sponsor talk to a team before a sprint about the importance of the new feature set to the world—you have never seen such commitment as I saw in that team in that timebox. Have your sponsor and product manager make the visit—the time invested can translate to delivered value.
3. Establish and Drive an Effective Product Backlog Grooming Process: Disaggregation (a term Agilists use to describe the defining a set of items that will result in the production of the whole) of the product into logical components, commonly referred to as “epics,” and the subsequent disaggregation of those epics into producible items (or “stories,” in Scrum) is the chief responsibility of the product manager (“product owner” in Scrum). This role works in close coordination with the development team, usually working with the Agile Coach (in Scrum, it may be the ScrumMaster) and/or other team members to prioritize the items listed in the product backlog, or PBL, prior to each sprint as part of its planning process.
There are several techniques that can be employed to support and mentor the work of a product manager (stay tuned for future blog posts on this topic!) and there are multiple resources on the Internet to get a good PBL up and running. The take-home message:
Make sure there is a close, communicative connection between the development team and the product owner throughout product development, and that the PBL is the central point of that connection.
4. Champion and Facilitate both Individual and Communal Commitment: A critical component of the translation of items from the Product Backlog to the Sprint Backlog (SBL) is a clear understanding on the team’s part of what each item is, how it will be produced, the criteria of satisfaction for its acceptance, and how it fits into the larger whole. As discussed above, this is fostered by a sufficiently-groomed PBL; another way to help facilitate this understanding is promoting a team-level mindset.
One of the steps in translation of items from PBL to SBL is the volunteering of team member(s) to perform the work involved in the item. This is the individual commitment necessary to produce the work. Great Agile teams, though, don’t stop there: They also commit communally as a team to all individual commitments.
To promote this, have the person(s) who has taken responsibility to produce the feature or component discuss:
- how the feature will be produced (remember W. Edwards Deming, the father of modern quality management: if you cannot describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing)
- what impediments may be encountered
- what information gaps needs to be filled, and any foreseen dependencies, risks, or issues.
Then have the team ask questions, give feedback and suggestions, and (if warranted) recite back the work as described. This will ensure a critical common understanding: Not only do the persons doing the work have a clear plan, but the team also understands—and can help if needed. This adds surety that all the work the team committed to in the sprint gets done, which is one definition of a successful iteration.
5. Coach the Team in the Beginning, Coach the Individual in the Middle: As Lyssa Adkins points out in her book Coaching Agile Teams, interruptions—even in the form of well-intentioned but ill-timed coaching—can seriously impact a team’s flow during a sprint. One way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to prevent ad-hoc “mini-retrospectives,” “team teaching sessions,” and other events from occurring during the iteration. You should save that type of teaching for the planning sessions and lessons learned reviews that bookend it (see #6 for more on this topic!). While the sprint is active, it is best to keep coaching at the individual team member level, and even that should be limited to directly supporting an immediate need in the sprint.
6. Leverage the Opportunities for Retrospective: Keep your retrospectives fresh with some easy modifications: Change up the agenda, location, facilitator role, and other elements to keep your team interested and engaged. Come prepared, but be flexible—I usually come to a retro with an agenda in mind (for example, something observed during the sprint that indicates a need for review of an Agile principle), but I check with the team first to see if there’s something they’d rather review. Check with the team on where in the Sprint cycle they’d like their retrospective. Many teams like to hold it directly after the review, some like to do it just before, still others like to wait until just before the beginning of the next iteration. Find what works for each team, but continually impress the importance of the retrospective. It is more than mere ceremony—it is a vital step to allow your team time and space to reflect on the past iteration in order to improve future ones.
7. Foster Urgency and Fun: One of the most productive aspects of an Agile production environment is the consistent, predictable, confining nature of timeboxed development. It creates a sense of urgency that can almost be sensed, like a feeling in the air. The regular performance of sprints helps with this—it creates the downbeat that helps everyone stay (or get back into) rhythm. It is the chassis on which the other elements of the Agile framework are attached (as they owe their intrinsic value to the sprint itself).
Foster that sense of urgency in your teams, but balance it with the need to maintain a sustainable pace. Moreover, make sure that your team is having fun! Agile is fun—getting things done that provide needed value to our customers quickly is intrinsically rewarding. Let that shine on your team in whichever way you find works—they will reward you with sprints jam-packed with innovative product delivery!
About the Author: Specializing in transformation and disruption services for companies looking to improve, Michael Bosch has been providing high-value delivery services for more than 15 years. An Agilist with more than 10 years’ experience in the incremental development of complex digital solutions, Mr. Bosch has served as a Scrum Master, developer, and Agile coach for multiple sectors and lines of business, is a recognized Agile services technologist, product developer, and staff development expert. He specializes in creating breakthrough, team-empowering, lightweight communication and delivery frameworks for organizations of all sizes. Mr. Bosch is a Certified Scrum Professional (CSP), an Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP), a Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Product Owner (CSPO), and an accredited Project Management Professional (PMP). He holds multiple degrees, including a masters in computer information systems. He has served as a professional trainer and speaker for more than a decade and is a published author and regular contributor to multiple information sources.